What Keeps Employees Happy: Erica Keswin & WITS

Tena LatonaBooks, Mission & Outcomes

WITS CEO Tena Letona with author Erica Keswin.

In the summer of 2023, at the peak of the “Quiet Quitting” and the “Great Resignation” movements, I was connected to Wall Street Journal best-selling author Erica Keswin while she was writing her next book, which would focus on the new shape of work coming out of the pandemic and what keeps employees happy and at their companies.

As the CEO of WITS, I know we are doing a great job of positioning our programs as a reason to come to the office and engage with colleagues and the community. I was happy to be introduced to Keswin and contribute to her research. Keswin’s book The Retention Revolution shares insights from leaders across industries and company sizes about what keeps the human part of work human as we all travel step after step into a more digital and distanced world. 

What keeps employees happy?

In the book, I say, “When it was time to return to in-person programming in September 2022, we knew we were doing so in a new corporate landscape…We knew our mission mattered to the thousands of mentors that work with our students. So, we made WITS a carrot for our corporations. Do not bring people to the office to fiddle with Excel all day. Bring them to the office to engage with each other and with their broader community. That is what WITS has always been – but it is more relevant now than ever.” 

Why is WITS, a Chicago-specific, relatively small organization, worthy of being in the pages of a WSJ best-selling author’s book? Because we know how to human. We know about community building, and how to connect people through the power of shared reading. We know this is what keeps employees happy.


Today, WITS is the fulcrum of the two things that have changed the most after the pandemic – office work and education. We are in Keswin’s book because we are the largest activator of corporate programming in Chicago Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the country, making us experts in building meaningful connections between corporations and the city they work in. Several experts say building connections has become increasingly important as companies navigate new office cultures, hybrid schedules, and work-from-home policies. 

A study published in Forbes and other outlets in September 2023 reported that 90% of respondents said their company will have a return to office mandate by the end of 2024. To compliment that, over 70% of respondents in another survey said they want a manageable hybrid schedule. Many also report that they are no longer as productive as they were at home in the heart of the pandemic when there was no other choice for many white-collar employees but to work from home. Additionally, they report missing out on building relationships with colleagues. Young professionals who started in the workforce in the depths of remote work are craving professional connections to be better employees and colleagues.  

This is why WITS matters in the new shape of work. 

We know from our surveys that corporate mentors in our programs are more satisfied with their work, feel more connected to their employees, and are glad that their employer supports WITS and provides this opportunity. This information is supported by research from Harvard Business Review, which shows that well-designed corporate volunteer programs boost productivity, increase employee engagement, and improve hiring retention. 

The Human Connection

The issue of human connection affects corporations and has had a direct effect on students. The social isolation of the pandemic has left students unable to form meaningful relationships, leading to chronic absenteeism. According to federal data, 29.7% of the nation’s students, nearly 14.7 million, were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year — missing school at least 10 percent of the time. That is an increase of roughly 89 percent over pre-pandemic rates. ProPublica recently wrote, “Absenteeism underlies much of what has beset young people in recent years, including falling school achievement, deteriorating mental health — exacerbated by social isolation.” 

Our youngest learners have missed years of building critical social interaction skills with peers and adults. These skills are proven to help students develop resiliency and important contextual skills. 

The consistent interactions that students have with caring adult mentors in well-designed programs like WITS have a long-term impact on who they are. Ninety-five percent of WITS students say they look forward to spending time with their mentor each week. At the end of the school year, 83% of WITS students said they like reading books for fun, up from 65% at the beginning of the year. 

These statistics prove the power of human connection and its positive effects on employees and students; this is the exact intersection that WITS occupies – corporate engagement and elementary education. 

Through community and human connection, we can transform the city of Chicago, engage in meaningful work, and positively change the lives of thousands of students. This is what keeps employees happy. I’d love to have you join us in this work.