Rebuilding Workplace Relationships in the Digital Age
Most people can agree that technology has made workplace communication more efficient than ever before — but how many consider the adverse side effects? With so many people increasingly plugged into their computers and phones, there has been a significant decline in the interpersonal communication skills that once made the workplace feel truly connected.
Erica Keswin, a renowned workplace strategist, speaker, author and founder of The Spaghetti Project, saw this issue first-hand and decided to do something about it. Helping organizations build strong workplace relationships through proper communication channels and bringing back the human element is something she has worked on strengthening in the digital age.
You are an “expert in the business of relationships.” Could you unpack that term for us and tell us how it applies to the workplace?
Keswin: One of the things that I began to see in my work was the impact of technology on relationships at work and how things began to change — some for better, some for worse. Everything from seeing people call in for meetings from down the hall to texting bad news to clients and really relying on technology to communicate instead of picking up the phone or walking down the hall.
I became curious about why people were foregoing this kind of connection. Did it impact us as people? Did it impact our businesses? What I found was that, yes, it does impact us and our businesses. I began to work with companies on how to find the sweet spot between leveraging all that is great about technology and also putting it “in its place.”
An example that I can share with you is what I call “mapping the message to the medium.” We think about communication along a continuum: we have IMs, texts, emails to picking up the phone to walking down a hall to getting on a plane. All of those mediums are not created equal. If I was running 10 minutes late for this call, I would send you an email or a text that I’m running late because I need to influence someone. If I have an employee who is unhappy and wants to step out the door and I want to retain them, I really need to pause and think more strategically about what is the most effective medium to strengthen that relationship.
That is really what I call “bringing your human[s] to work,” which is figuring out the role of technology in the workplace.
What was your inspiration behind the Spaghetti Project and how does this platform help people build meaningful connections in the workplace?
Keswin: When I started doing research about the impact of technology on relationships at work, I started seeing more and more people who were phoning it in. I rolled up my sleeves and started trying to get a handle on the data and one of the studies that I came across during that time was a study out of Cornell University by a professor named Kevin Kniffin.
Kevin’s father was a firefighter and when he was getting his doctorate in the organizational work area, he studied what differentiates performance among different groups of people. Because his father was a firefighter and he grew up with firefighters, it was natural for him to decide to study firehouses. What he found was that the firefighters who were the most dedicated to the long-standing tradition of the firehouse meal actually correlated with higher levels of performance and they saved more lives.
When I found that study, it really provided the data and background for me for something that I knew intuitively. When I started meeting and interviewing firefighters to get some colour about how this actually worked when they were sitting around the table, I talked to the firefighters about their lives and found out what they stereotypically eat — it was spaghetti and meatballs. That was how I came up with the name “the Spaghetti Project.”
What I do is host these events to bring people together and talk about why we are not connecting. The day can go by and you can send out 700 emails, but you may not have moved your business forward in the way you want. Through the Spaghetti Project, I’m trying to bring more intention around how, where and why we connect.
What does a healthy workplace relationship look like and what are some of the most important things to keep in mind when trying to build one?
Keswin: I’m writing a book called Bring Your Human to Work and in the book I lay out “10 sure-fire ways to design a workplace that is good for people, great for business and just might change the world.” The reason why I wrote this book was to provide a road map for anyone who wants to bring this to their workplace. I don’t believe that you need to be a huge company with deep pockets to do some of these things.
What are some of the ways to do it? I can highlight a couple. One chapter is called “Playing the Long Game” and that chapter focuses on the importance of what I call “intentional work practices,” which includes making sure you address what many Millenials and other generations want in the workplace — flexibility. It addresses other these types of programs that allow for what I call “human sustainability” and what employees today are demanding. That chapter also focuses on diversity and inclusion and helps people come up with real programs and practices to achieve that. The final bucket in that chapter deals with looking at what kind of businesses we have and looking at who our partners are. What kind of company cultures do we want to be associated with?
Another chapter is about wellness, not just giving everybody a Fitbit and hope they reach their 10,000 steps, but more and more companies are really looking at well-being from a holistic perspective. Mental health, spiritual health, even workplace instability and rudeness. All these different things that add so much stress to our lives. At the end of the day, all of this comes back to the opening chapter which is called “Be Real” and if you don’t understand who you are as company then you really need to start there.
With workplaces becoming increasingly flexible and mobile, how can people still build those interpersonal relationships without physically being in the office at all times?
Keswin: I would say a couple of things: number one, I strongly believe that if you’re having a call with your team and everyone is remote — it has to be on one of the technologies that allows you to see each other. There’s a study I recently read that says when you’re on a conference call, on average a third of people are multi-tasking. I would venture to say it’s much higher than that. I believe if you’re a manager and you’re running a group and you have a Monday morning meeting, the rule needs to be that everyone needs to be on a technology where you can see each other. Maybe it’s not every meeting or every call, but if you have one where you know your whole team is on there, that has to be a must. It’s also important that everyone is trained on how to use the technology.
Number two I will address from the employer and employee perspective. From the employee perspective, if it were me, I would make an effort to go into the office once a week if your setup allows for it. Even if I didn’t need to be there from an actual business perspective, I would try to work from headquarters or from a regional office just to be around other people if it’s possible. From an employer perspective, I truly believe that there’s a return on investment in spending the money to bring your team or department together once a quarter or year. There is a study out of the University of Michigan that found that found the ROI on even getting everyone together for one time was so huge and had such a long ripple effect over time that it’s worth it.
The stories and the data speak for themselves with companies where they worked remote and now they’re bringing everybody back like IBM did. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle where you have rules of the road and protocols to ensure people are in the office sometimes or they overlap on certain days — you will get a big bang for your buck.
With respect to workplace relationships, what do you think the future of the workplace will look like in the next 5-10 years?
Keswin: I think one of the biggest things that we’re already starting to address is the role of technology and artificial intelligence. Which jobs are going to exist, which jobs aren’t going to exist given that technology will begin to take over different aspects of our jobs. What I believe is that it’s going to make the human and relationship element that much more important as robots take over different parts of our jobs.
Let’s say in the financial services industry with wealth advisers. I used to pay x-amount to have my financial adviser and now there are robo-advisers that I can use if I have basic financial needs. So what happens to all of these financial and wealth advisers that exist? They can’t just recommend a stock anymore, which used to be more of what that business was about. Now they need to have better relationship skills, they need to understand me as a person, my values, the age of my kids, how I want to think about philanthropy. Wealth advisers need to provide a much higher level of human service to justify their fees.
In this world of increasing technology, people need to strengthen their human skills because that is what is going to differentiate them on the open market in the next 5-10 years.