Bring Your Human to Work, with author Erica Keswin

Bring Your Human to Work, with author Erica Keswin

As humans, we’re wired to connect with others and build relationships. We spend most of our time at work, so it should be no surprise that our relationships must also translate to the workplace. Companies that figure this out will end up retaining the best and brightest and end up on top of the competition.

In this episode, author of Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World, Erica Keswin shares how leaders and HR professionals can encourage people to be healthy in body and spirit, run meetings with a clear purpose, how to make space for face to face interactions, and much more.

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Run Time: 33:16

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Brandon Laws: Hey, Erica. It’s so great to have you on the podcast. Thanks for joining.

Erica Keswin: Yeah, thanks so much for the invitation.

Brandon Laws: Your new book and your first book Bring Your Human to Work: Ten Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That’s Good for People, Great for Business and Just Might Change the World, it has been out for about three weeks. You’ve been on the best-selling list for Wall Street Journal after what? First or second week.

Erica Keswin: Yeah.

Brandon Laws: This book is doing really well, isn’t it?

Erica Keswin: Yeah, I’m excited. I think that it’s the right time in this age where we are connected digitally. So much of the time, there is a part of all of us that is craving that connection and because we spend so much of our waking day at work, it’s a logical place to look for some of that.

Brandon Laws: I mean the title of the book jumped out at me and I think we need this book. That’s probably why you came to the conclusion to write this book, I would imagine.

Erica Keswin: Exactly, exactly. I kept hearing – one of the things that was interesting was that I was seeing and noticing these trends around technology. I think we – everybody listening to the podcast would agree that technology has changed most if not all aspects of our lives. You know, some for the good, some for not as good. But that was interesting to me. But what was even more interesting was that as the trend with the digital increase was going on, I began to see the word “human” popping up wherever I looked.

You know, I want to bring my whole self to work, design a human workplace. I kept saying to myself, A, “What does that mean?” and B, “Why is this happening now?” and the conclusion that I came to was that in many ways, it was in response to this digital revolution.

So they’re interconnected. And because the technology is not going away anytime soon – nor should it; I mean I’m a huge fan of technology – we need to better understand and be intentional about the role of the human connection in the workplace, and in life.

Brandon Laws: Yeah, there’s definitely a balance to using technology. It could definitely benefit us. But I think you – like in the intro for example, you visualized this perfectly. So you wrote that you started seeing behaviors in the workplace you hadn’t seen before. It was like more and more employees down the hall were calling into meetings. They were texting bad news to clients instead of calling them and they’re eating lunch alone at their desk while they’re wearing headphones.

So it’s like this closed off connection thing and you’re relying on technology to connect with people whereas like actually having human touch. So I imagine that’s why you decided to pull the thread on what does it mean to be human at work.

Erica Keswin: Exactly. I wanted to create a roadmap because I think many times when you talk about some of these softer issues, people don’t get down to the details on what it means and how to do it. The book provides both the science, the data behind why it’s important and then stories of people who have done it and what they’ve done, and then the impact that it has had.

Brandon Laws: Your book like really covers – I mean, the subtitle Ten Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That’s Good for People – it really outlines the ways in which you could be more human, right? Basically, you’ve defined what it means to be human at work, through your work, and then you’ve outlined these 10 ways that anybody could implement.

They seem simple on the surface. Is that what you wanted people to take away? It’s like here are just 10 things that I’ve realized through talking with people, organizations, leaders and here’s the playbook, so to speak.

Erica Keswin: Exactly. And people will say, “Well, why 10? Do you need to do all of them?” What’s nice about the book and the concepts in the book is that you don’t need to do them all. They are actually in no particular order, that you can pick and choose from a menu of options – what makes sense for you, your company, your industry, what your employees want, your budget. Many of these things actually don’t cost much, except for chapter one.

Chapter one is called “Be Real: How to Speak in a Human Voice” and that chapter is about knowing your values and truly defining them and making sure that they are off the walls and are felt in the halls, that they’re alive because most companies have a set of values. They have something written down. But most of those companies, unfortunately, people don’t have a sense of what those values are. And they are not driving any types of behaviors or decisions within the company.

So that chapter, not only knowing your values, but then aligning everything you do to those values and empowering your employees to live them. If you can focus on that chapter and do some of the things in that chapter, it will be much easier to think about how all of these other chapters work. Because it is, I would say, one of the most important things in designing a human workplace is knowing what you stand for.

Brandon Laws: I 100% agree. I’m actually glad that was the first chapter because I think like having a value system in authenticity and transparency around who you are, what you believe in, that’s a foundation for any organization and people. They want to align with that.

Erica Keswin: It is. But I’m sure you’ve seen in your work too the mistake that a lot of companies make is that they have way too many values, 10, 12, 14 values. When you have that many values, a couple – you have a couple of challenges. Number one, you walk around your office and it’s hard to remember. I mean who’s going to remember 12 values, number one.

Number two, there are too many to be driving any specific kinds of behavior that you really need to narrow it down. So the test that I use, I call it the “fork in the road” test. When you’re at the fork in the road and you don’t know whether to turn left or right or who to hire, who to fire, do you launch this product, do you do this deal, your values should drive you.

If there are certain values that don’t, you may want to think about taking – you know, they still could be important principles in some way in your company. But they may not truly be a value of what you stand for at your core. So my rule of thumb is three to six values. Very few companies could narrow it down to three. I see many more in that four to six range but that to me is something to shoot for.

Brandon Laws: So being in the business to business world that I’m in, especially as a marketer in my profession, I think it’s funny that we treat it like business to business. Like we’re interacting – as a business, we’re interacting with another business versus a human to human interaction, which it obviously is. How could business leaders encourage employees within the organizations to be more real, so that they feel like they’re talking with real authentic people with nuances and imperfections and their values kind of show through in their interactions?

How do we encourage that inside the organization, so we can show ourselves to the outside as well?

Erica Keswin: Number one, leaders have to model it. If a leader is real and authentic and shares a side of themselves that is a little bit more human, they are setting the tone and will get the people that work for them to do it as well. So that’s the first thing and a really important piece of this.

The second is to capture people doing it and doing it well and sharing those stories. So Lyft is a company that’s in the book and they have four very clear values. One is uplift others, excusing the pun. You know, one is to create fearlessly and every month at their all-hands meeting, they tell their managers in advance to send in stories where they’ve seen people living these values.

Brandon Laws: Oh, I love that.

Erica Keswin: So they’re creating this repository of data and of stories of what people have done and that’s great. You can use that for customers. You can use that for investors. You can use that for employees, attraction and retention. But then they pick a few – they pick two stories. One from a driver, so somebody on the frontlines, in the “front office” and then somebody in the back office, who’s not a driver, and they tell the story of how someone has lived one of those values.

The stories are unbelievable. There are some great ones that I talk about in the book. There are some real tear jerkers in there. And what I say is that by collecting these stories, that’s one step. But then by sharing these stories so that other new people, when they come into the organization, can see and feel what this looks like, what these behaviors look like that are tied to the values which are so important to the culture.

It – again, excusing the pun – but it uplifts everyone versus just the one person that has found out about the story. So that storytelling is a really critical piece.

Then the final piece, which is a little – which is harder but companies are really looking at it, is to measure and evaluate leaders on some of these behaviors. What did people do? What they’re measured – you know, you do what you’re measured on doing. So that becomes an important part of the equation as well.

Brandon Laws: In chapter two you describe sustainability as being like the marshmallow test for business and I love that. I thought that was a really clever way to describe playing the long game and being a sustainable business. Can you describe what that marshmallow test is for people who don’t know that psychology test? Then describe how workplaces can be more sustainable and play the long game. Because you have a lot of good ideas in that chapter.

Erica Keswin: So playing the long game in my book focuses on how to create a culture, an organization that is first and inclusive. This goes for small companies, big companies and everything in between. The approach that I took was in addition to talking about some companies with some great diversity and inclusion strategies, I talk about why it’s important for companies to also think about what I call “intentional work practices.” What I mean by that is if companies don’t think about and create programs and policies around flexible work, parental leave, bereavement leave, there’s no way they will be able to attract and retain a diverse workforce.

The other reason why this is a great time to be thinking about this and to be in the workplace is that millennials, who will make up 25 percent of the workforce by 2025 and 50 percent by 2020, which is literally around the corner.

They’re demanding a more diverse workplace and they’re making decisions on where they want to work based on it and they want to work for companies who have these intentional work practices and think about where, when and how one can work in a more flexible way.

Then the highest level or the last level of playing the long game is what I call “enlightened supply chains” and these are companies that say, “I want to play the long game and have a diverse and inclusive organization within my own four walls. But I’m even going to expand that to the kinds of companies that I do business with,” and an amazing example and a very recent example of this was Microsoft came out with a statement about three weeks ago and said that they will only work with suppliers who provide 12 weeks of maternity and paternity leave, parental leave.

Brandon Laws: Wow.

Erica Keswin: Which – I mean that exponentially can impact how a human workplace went because you can imagine how many different suppliers a company like Microsoft works with.

Brandon Laws: I actually love that because – talk about playing the long game. Like there’s nothing more long game than bringing a child into the world and making sure that we have economic and social sustainability by raising people the right way. I like that businesses are starting to get involved in playing a role and offering maternity and paternity leave.

You mentioned one company that’s doing it really well. What are some other companies that you’ve heard of or talked to that have really put an emphasis on this paid parental leave?

Erica Keswin: What’s interesting, there are big companies like Microsoft and Airbnb is one. I mean they do something that – and I haven’t heard a lot of companies do this where when you come back from a maternity leave – you know, we all know you want to – in an ideal world, you can dip your toe in sort of slowly versus going zero to a thousand overnight when you’ve been home for a few months.

They actually let you come back 80 percent but for 100 percent pay and sort of ease your way back in and they also give you dinner to bring home for your family. Again –

Brandon Laws: Oh, that’s amazing.

Erica Keswin: You’re always thinking about this from a human perspective. On the smaller company, smaller companies are thinking about this too. There’s a company called Humanyze in Boston. Not – again, not a big company. The head is a guy named Ben Waber who wrote an article recently about maternity and paternity leave. They actually have mandatory paternity leave and that’s something that many companies have been throwing around as an idea and debating its merits because the issue is if only women take parental leave, it then becomes – it’s a woman issue. So if you’re looking to hire a man or a woman and you know that the woman is of child-bearing age and they may leave and take multiple parental leaves, that could be an issue.

They also believe – this company also believes that – you know, as you were getting to, from a societal perspective, what an amazing gift to be able to have fathers spending real time at home with their children in their first weeks of life.

Brandon Laws: Yeah. I would imagine – I mean for one, it’s a great benefit and people probably have a lot of loyalty towards organizations if they offer that. I mean you can’t get any more human than that.

They actually care about me. They want me to stay home with my newborn child for a couple of weeks or three weeks, four weeks, whatever it may be. I think that’s amazing that some people are doing that.

Erica Keswin: Really, it’s a focus and again, going back to the new generations coming into the workforce, they want this in a way. We wanted it too, the Gen-Xers. But there weren’t enough of us to move the needle and we didn’t feel like we could ask for a more human workplace. Work was work. But this generation is different.

Brandon Laws: You talk a lot in your book about technology and its impact on whether or not we could be human at work. Do you think overall that it’s helping us become more human or is it really hurting us by pulling us farther apart? Is there maybe a balance between how we’re using technology in the workplace?

Erica Keswin: I think the words “balanced technology” is tricky because it’s – there is no balance anymore.

Brandon Laws: Yeah.

Erica Keswin: My approach to it is more around what I call “finding the sweet spot” between leveraging all that’s amazing about technology, right? You and I are on technology right now. We’re going to reach tons and tons of people that are your listeners through technology. But if this is the only way that we communicated all day every day in our lives, it would not be good for us as humans and it would be not – it would not be good for either of our businesses.

So we need to think about leveraging technology but then also putting it “in its place.” The challenge with that is – you know, excusing the pun here but left to our own devices, we’re not connecting. There’s a lot of reasons for it. Some of it is that the technology is designed to suck us in and we almost can’t help ourselves.

So a lot of what I talk about with leaders and when I work with companies and I also touched on it quite a bit in the book is that we need to be disciplined. We need to be intentional and even create organizational protocols around how, when and where we’re using technology to benefit us.

So there’s a chapter in the book called “Mind Your Meetings.” We spend a lot of our days in meetings and in many cases, if we’re not intentional about how we connect, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity when we’re sitting around the table or even with Zoom or Skype. You know, something – using the technology but we’re not turning the camera on or we’re sitting in the same room and we’re texting under the table.

So these organizational protocols really keep us honest and disciplined and the data is clear. When people connect at work, the engagement goes up. Turnover goes down and it’s just not a – again, where I started with – it’s not a touchy-feely exercise. It’s good for business.

Brandon Laws: There was an example in the technology chapter about finding that sweet spot where it described it as a blessing in some ways. So – and this is a customer interaction – so JetBlue, they somehow automated the check-in process and other like probably really mundane, boring tasks to free up their staff, so that they could do more customer service-oriented things. You had an example where one of the staff members got coffee and ran it over to a mom who was probably struggling with two or three kids and was overly tired.

To me, I read that story and I’m like, “Well, that’s a really good use of technology where you’re really streamlining boring administrative tasks, where you free up people to do something that’s way more useful and could have a human connection.” Is that how you would look at that too?

Erica Keswin: That’s another – oh, I love that example. It’s another example of playing the long game because they streamline their check-in process. But it’s – but not for everyone. So if I go there with my parents who definitely do not want to sign in and print their own bag tags, but I’m perfectly fine doing that or my kids are sure perfectly fine doing it. You don’t need as many people doing it. You want to make sure there are some people doing it for the people that want that higher touch interaction with the bag tags.

But the long game piece here too is that instead of just having resources and having that go immediately to the bottom line by getting rid of a person or two, by reallocating those resources, and aligning it with their values saying, “This is what we’re about as a brand,”  – that’s the long game. I mean that just pays dividends for years and years to come and every time I speak and talk about JetBlue, I see the nods in the audience where people feel that there is something different on that airline and what’s different is that their crew members are truly motivated, incentivized, affected and empowered to live those values.

Brandon Laws: Let’s talk about well-being. So it seems to me that a lot of employers are putting emphasis on well-being. Like it’s a responsibility that they have to make sure that their employees are feeling good and healthy and all these – and mental health course.

You talked about, in one of the chapters, about well-being and I think the whole chapter is dedicated to this one company Vynamic and how they’re really changing the way well-being should be at work. Can you give some of those examples? Because I thought some of those things were amazing and I’m like I – we should implement these here in my office.

Erica Keswin: Yeah. Many of them are – there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit and again, a lot of them don’t cost very much. The reason why I went deeper on one company was that – you know, I didn’t want to present this whole idea of well-being at work. Just go get everybody a Fitbit and – yeah. Not that giving everybody a Fitbit is a bad thing. I think people would be psyched to have that thing – competitions at work. But I do think this idea of holistic well-being has a much deeper meaning in more and more companies.

So Vynamic, even the way it started, Dan Calista, the CEO – and Dan used to work for another consulting firm. You know, one of the big consulting firms, which in many ways was a fairly inhumane industry. You’re at the beck and call of your clients and you’re on a plane and it’s challenging work. He loved it but he said to himself, “There has got to be a better way,” and left to start Vynamic with a goal of it being one of the healthiest companies in the world.

So he started it from a mission perspective with the goal of let’s see what – how we can move the needle on this being a more healthy company – so Dan has everything from a curator of healthy snacks to a fulltime person who focuses on the health and well-being of all the consultants there. And that’s an interesting story because one of his consultants came to him and said that she had a real interest and passion – a side hustle going on in the space around life coaching and wellness. And he told her to go back to school to get her degree and then allowed her to take that passion and do it fulltime at Vynamic.

They have ergonomically correct chairs and lighting that is best for people. When their employees are working locally on clients from the Philadelphia area, they will actually bring the chairs and the light and the snacks and all of that to the clients place. One of the practices that I really enjoyed hearing about at Vynamic was a program called zzzMail as in – some Zs and in consulting, in financing, really every industry these days, as I was talking about earlier, it’s hard to know when the work day ends and then your evening at home with your family and friends begins.

Dan didn’t want to leave that up to chance. So the program zzzMail says to everyone you can’t send an email after 10:00 PM or before 6:00 AM unless it’s mission-critical. And don’t send them on the weekends.

Their people are very driven, smart employees in this company. So it’s not out of laziness but he’s saying to them, “You know what? Let’s be smarter and more intentional and more thoughtful about when we send emails and let’s make sure that what we’re doing is actually mission-critical.”

Are there times when you work on the weekend? Of course. You have a deadline and nobody has a problem with that. But it forces you as an employee to sort of pause before you press send. And just the last fun thing that I will share is that he said to me, “You don’t want to be the person at Vynamic who sends the Z bomb with the email at 9:55.” Who wants to be that person?

Brandon Laws: I love that. So I want to round out our conversation and close it with the gratitude and thank-yous, as you say to be more human at work really. And you talk about a story with the Starbucks barista. I want you to tell that story and then talk about how it influenced you to write this book in the first place.

Erica Keswin: I’m a big Starbucks fan.

Brandon Laws: Me too. I have one right here.

Erica Keswin: It’s my daily drink. It’s almost my time. People ask because I’m a big meditator when I talk about wellness. I feel like that coffee at Starbucks, feeling the heat on my hands is almost my daily – just kind of thinking – time to meditate at Starbucks.

Erica Keswin: So I live in New York City and I have been walking by my local Starbucks on 81st and Broadway for 13 years. Over the years, I got to know my barista, Ashley Peterson. She would know my drink. She would have it ready and waiting for me and she got to know my kids when I started having kids.

A couple of years ago, one of my daughters became obsessed with the Starbucks pumpkin scones. And if you know about the scones and the pumpkin spice lattes and the whole group of people there that wait every year until the fall when those seasonal items get into the stores in Starbucks, like a big thing, which I hadn’t realized.

So one day, Ashley said to my daughter, “Caroline, I just want you to know that in a couple of weeks, there aren’t going to be any more pumpkin scones.” So Caroline was sort of bummed but life went on and finally they ran out. So it was November 1st a few years ago. We walked by Starbucks. Ashley had my grande extra hot soy latte waiting for me. This was before the app. I go in. I get my coffee and we kept walking to school.

The next thing I know, I hear someone screaming my name running down Broadway and I turn around. I thought I had left my wallet in the Starbucks – again because it was before the app, when I actually needed my wallet in the Starbucks – and it was Ashley. She’s calling my name. Caroline and I stopped. She catches up, out of breath, turns to Caroline and says, “Caroline, I know you’re bummed that there’s no more pumpkin scones. But now that it’s November 1st and it’s holiday season, here’s a piece of gingerbread that you might like.”

Sort of in that moment, A, there was a huge smile on my kid’s face. But here’s a person that we have known, that we have been interacting with, who literally and physically came out from behind the counter, chased us down the street and as a workplace strategist, A, I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh. This is so unbelievable.” B, how can Starbucks bottle this?

Brandon Laws: Yeah, right.

Erica Keswin: And any company that could bottle what Ashley did in that moment to connect with us as true humans could crack the code on any business. That was in that moment when this idea of bringing your human to work came to be.

I will end by saying that it’s a bummer for me because Ashley is no longer at 81st and Broadway. But the good news for her is that Starbucks saw in her what I did from a workplace perspective. She has been promoted five times. She now manages her very own Starbucks on 55th and 5th.

Brandon Laws: Amazing.

Erica Keswin: Whoever is listening to this and is in town, you could visit her in the Uniqlo building and yeah, she’s truly unbelievable. So how can we in all of our companies think about the way we interact with our colleagues, the people that work for us, our customers, in a more human way?

Brandon Laws: I think it’s well said because I think we got – and I think a lot of businesses are still thinking about it. But we do things that scale, right? We want to be transactional and do things low cost and just at scale. But that human interaction that you talk about doesn’t necessarily scale. But it builds a loyalty and it brings out the human interaction and I think that’s way more appealing than low cost and average. So Erica, your book, it’s available – where can people find it?

Erica Keswin: Bring Your Human to Work is on Amazon. It has been for a number of weeks now the number one new release in business management and in human resources and personnel management and at Barnes and Noble. Really anywhere books are sold.

Brandon Laws: Awesome.

Erica Keswin: And I would love to hear from people. You can reach me at Let me know what you think about the book. I have a new subscription to a newsletter called “The Human Headline” that I’m sending out once a month, which highlights leaders who are implementing some of the programs and policies across all of the chapters in the book, so we can keep up on who’s doing these things well and learn from them.

Brandon Laws: Great. We will put links up to all those resources. Are you speaking at any conferences coming up soon that you could point people to as well?

Erica Keswin: A lot of private events. But I will be at Work Human in March and I will be at South by Southwest. So in a number of different places and it’s all on my website when I’m going to be in different cities.

Brandon Laws: Amazing. Erica Keswin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This is a lot of fun and keep up the good work. This is a great book. I encourage people to go buy it and I hope you have great success with it over the next several months as you’re probably on the road a lot.

Erica Keswin: Yeah, but reach out. If I’m in your city, I would love to say hello.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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