THE BLOG
10/04/2016 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dispatch From TechTable: How to Work Like a Hospitable Human

On September 29th, I participated in the TechTable Summit, a one-day conference with folks from around the hospitality industry. The tagline is Hi-Tech for Hi-Touch. Right up my alley.

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A great tag!

I was invited to TechTable by one of its founders, Maureen Cushing who is in charge of technology at Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group - a company leading the charge on bringing our human to work, and in this case, to the table. The day was an invigorating think-tank for people striving to integrate new technologies with the human touch.

Some Highlights

Chip Conley, Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb talked about how "we can enhance human connection instead of replace it."

David Cantu, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer of Hotschedules talked about how technology can help restaurant workers do their job better. "It can keep you out on the floor longer."

Jo Berrington and Claes Landberg from Yotel talked about how technology frees up time for them to build strong relationships with their staff. "We are tech forward. Not tech dependent."

The message was loud and clear: Don't let technology drive the mission. Be human first. Then find smart ways for technology to amplify the mission.

While I loved listening to all the speakers, my favorite was the inspirational Ellen Bennett, the Founder of Hedley & Bennett - the company that outfits both pro and DIY foodies with the go-to of chic aprons. Ellen was motivated to create her business when she was a line cook who "wanted to make a better uniform; something that made people feel better about themselves even if they were the lowest of the low-line cooks in the kitchen. " In other words, she wanted to help people feel "like they were somebody, not just nobody." And with a serious stroke of genius, she set out to change all that with cool, chic, fun aprons. Now Hedley + Bennett, referred to by some as the "Apple of kitchen apparel," is a pack-leader on human brands. How did she do it?

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What I call being real Ellen calls developing your voice

Bringing Yourself to Work Works!

Turning an apron into a coveted lifestyle commodity is quite the success story. While there will always be a healthy dose of right time, right place to these things, there is also a simple code that anyone can crack, but few do. It has to do with being real. Really real. And diligent.

And it just so happens that Ms. Bennett does the three things I tell companies to do in order to bring their human to work.

1. Prioritize relationships. Ellen values warmth and happiness. And she exudes both. She invests time in relationships and brings people together by organizing cookbook parties, dinners with bloggers, and networking chit chat with people like me (I am going to visit her headquarters and factory in March). Her message is, "Let's be real. Let's get to know each other as people. I want to create a culture where people feel loved." So that's what she does. All day, every day. Dotting every I, and crossing every T.

2. Position and leverage technology. Ellen is a master at this. In order to humanize her brand, she leverages the power of technology (Instagram in her case) to showcase her message that connection matters. She ensures that the pictures are high quality, highlighting experiences like cooking on the line, chilling in the kitchen, and sewing her "badass aprons," and that they represent her company values. Her strategy works. She has over 65,000 Instagram followers.

3. Develop protocols. In order for Ellen to ensure that her values are alive and well throughout the organization, she has developed protocols to guide how people communicate and interact, both face-to-face and via technology. For example, everyone who enters the factory is greeted with a hug and an ice cream. "Warmth and happiness are our values and this comes through in the way we greet each other." She also weighs in on communication via email. "We do not have a very corporate culture, so if someone sends an email that is not consistent with our values of 'being real', I shut it down...it's little things like this that go a long way in guiding our brand."

Whether we are talking about hospitality or hedge funds, every business has similar challenges--to develop a unique offering that people want, and to be sustainable. Whether we're talking about a brand promise like Hedley & Bennett, the customer experience of the Union Square Hospitality Group, or the hosts of Airbnb, relationships are at the center of every human enterprise.

Which is to say, regardless of industry, and whether we realize it or not, it's always the quality of our relationships that we bring to the table.

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Ellen and I at the TechTable Summit