This week we are talking about building authentic connections at work with Munir Pathak, founder at Swirl.
Following the last interview with Matt Bradburn on people debt, we sat down with Munir Pathak, founder at Swirl, to talk about how to build authentic connections at work and what's the impact that this can generate.
I first found out about Munir and Swirl thanks to The Pitch podcast (which I'm a fan of) and then intrigued by what he presented dug deeper. Munir is tackling a problem that resonated with me, and the fact that he started his company in a similar way we did with Humaans (by interviewing HR and People Ops leaders to get a real first hand grasp around the space and problem areas), it made we want to connect right away. He also shared his learnings – very helpful!
With Munir we're discussing aspects of relationship building at work and how to foster a sense of belonging within the workplace, what actions companies can take to ensure people don't get isolated and how quality relationships can be built in the digital age, where we have interfaced in-between a good portion of our interactions.
I thank Munir for taking the time and I hope you'll benefit from his insights and perspective.
Munir, could you tell us a bit about your background?
I am driven to leverage technology for good. With prior experience in data science, analytics, operations management, and public health, I have built and led a number of successful teams and strategies focused on innovation and process improvement in both large company and startup environments. I’m passionate about people, culture, community, and economic opportunity. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are core to my view of how to improve the world. My wife and I live in Philadelphia, and I love to travel and explore new cuisines and cultures.
What’s the “people challenge” that you identified that made you want to build Swirl, and why it’s worth solving?
Growing up in an immigrant household, I had one culture at home and another out in the world. It became natural for me to build relationships and find commonalities with people who are different from me, and thinking about identity and navigating cultures is a normal part of my daily life. Some people can relate to this, and some people can't. When you put this into the context of the workplace, it makes sense why 95% of corporate diversity programs fail. In order for people from all backgrounds to achieve their full potential at work, they need to be able to build authentic connections with others. This grows inclusion, equity, and belonging to enable more effective collaboration, innovation, and creativity. Pairing my perspective with a clear market need inspired me to come up with a way to help people build relationships across differences independent of their lived experience. Swirl represents my passion to enable authentic connections between people so that workplace culture can empower everyone, regardless of their personal identity.
What’s the impact of poor relationships at work and the lack of a sense of belonging? How can this affect both an individual and the organisation?
When someone doesn’t feel a sense of belonging at work, they tend to leave. The tech industry specifically has the highest rate of employee turnover, costing U.S. employers more than 16 billion dollars a year, and this rate is only increasing.
It turns out, workplace culture is a key driver of turnover in tech, especially for employees from underrepresented groups. Nearly two-thirds of tech leavers would have stayed if their company focused on making their culture more inclusive.
In addition to improved retention, companies with inclusive cultures are twice as likely to achieve better financial performance, 6 times more likely to be innovative, and 8 times more likely to achieve better business outcomes. Inclusive culture enables employees to feel a sense of belonging at work, making them 5.3 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.
It’s natural to bond at work with peers that work within the same team, department, or floor. This means missing out on connecting with many other great people. Do you think this is our fault, or the way most workplaces are designed has a negative impact on our ability to build relationships?
It’s a bit of both. As humans, we tend to be tribal and create our ingroups and outgroups, and workplace design can reinforce this tribal mentality, leading to silos at work. These silos are a top enemy to improving communication, collaboration, and trust across the organization. The flow of knowledge and cross-functional collaboration are critical to every aspect of growing a company. Relying on open communication to happen organically as the organization grows is a recipe for failure, and it is difficult to rectify. By creating awareness among people about our biases in who we choose to build relationships with, and combining that with effective systems of communication and workplace design, we can break down these silos and see the corresponding business results.
Are there any actions that organisations can take to help their employees get to know people they wouldn't normally connect with? (With and without the help of technology)
Finding ways to make open communication systematic and natural creates opportunities for people to build relationships across the organization. I’ve spoken with companies who have found success by implementing interactive all-hands meetings on a regular schedule, creating open-door policies with leadership across departments, having cross-functional project teams so that interdepartmental relationships are embedded in your normal day-to-day work, having inclusive meeting practices so that more voices are heard, and organizing opportunities to socialize (e.g. happy hours, interactive lunch and learns, offsite days, community service activities). Technology supports relationship building by bridging digital and physical communication at work, e.g. you can have interest-based Slack channels that help you connect with others outside of your direct team. You can also leverage a number of software products that help you do things like publicly recognize the contributions of your colleagues, connect you for group discussions on particular topics, or match you for deeper conversations with people who are outside your “ingroup” to have dedicated time to get to know each other offline.
In my experience by working at startups, professional hierarchy is not a barrier to connect with people. Do you think that’s the case in larger and more structured organisations?
I agree on the startup front, but it’s hard to generalize at the larger org level. It really depends on the organization’s values and culture. Sometimes there is a clear barrier, and those organizations tend to be behind the curve when it comes to leveraging the power of relationships at work. Other times, there may be an unspoken barrier that larger organizations are trying to battle. For example, a number of large companies make it a point to set up skip-level meetings within the hierarchy so that people have regular face to face opportunities with leadership who may be 1, 2, even 3 levels above their direct manager. Believe it or not, there are large companies where professional hierarchy is not a barrier at all. I was lucky enough to work at such an organization, and that really enabled me to experience and visualize how a culture of connection can drive productivity, innovation, and creativity to allow an organization to outperform their competitors.
In real life human interactions are an important component of the relationship building process. How do you see these relationships forming in a “digitally” connected world, that is less “physically” connected?
In my perspective, our digital world should meet our human needs in the physical world. I’d argue that technology has lost its way when considering the needs of humans in real life. When technology is leveraged in a way that is constructive to the human experience, that’s where the digital world can drive true value in the big picture. Our digital connections need to go beyond likes, comments, and echo chambers; conversations embedded in reality are key to fulfilling human interaction. Whether they are formed digitally or physically, relationships that form on the basis of real experiences and perspectives are the ones that are most meaningful and valuable.
We tend to connect with people that have similar interests. But something special (beyond work) can be unlocked when embracing diversity. With Swirl specifically, how are you thinking about facilitating connections between people that “on paper” are not a match?
This is a great question, and this gets back to how we choose who to build relationships with. We all carry cognitive biases that impact who we consider to be in our ingroup, or people we can easily identify with, and those in our outgroup, who we tend to avoid. Most of these biases are unconscious, meaning we’re not actively deciding to exclude people from our circle. However, these biases are learned, and they can be unlearned. That’s what we’re doing with Swirl. Our algorithm connects you to people who have similar interests but differences in personal identity. We tell you what you have in common and give you a few conversation starters, with the expectation that you take dedicated time to get to know each other better over coffee, lunch, or video call. By highlighting commonalities and connecting people who may not have connected otherwise based on their identity factors, we’re breaking through the bias layer that we all carry. Doing this regularly can help you unlearn an unconscious bias over time.
Are there any resources on the subject that would you recommend our readers to check out?
A ton of amazing work is being done in this space, and while this list is by no means exhaustive, some great resources include:
- Project Include: projectinclude.org
- Inclusion At Work blog: inclusionatwork.co
- Kapor Center for Social Impact: kaporcenter.org
- Atlassian Balance and Belonging: atlassian.com/belonging
- HBR Article: hbr.org/2018/12/to-retain-employees-focus-on-inclusion-not-just-diversity
- HBR Article: hbr.org/2019/11/the-day-to-day-work-of-diversity-and-inclusion
- Culture Amp’s Diversity and Inclusion Starter Kit: cultureamp.com/diversity-inclusion-starter-kit/
- Practicing Inclusive Meetings: salesforce.com/blog/2019/06/equality-practice-inclusive-meetings.html
Where can people connect or find out more about you?
If you have experience revolving around startups, people and culture, ping us on Twitter @HumaansHQ or drop me an email at email@example.com. We'd love to learn from your journey and share your learnings.
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