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What I Learned at WorkHuman 2017

When several of the smartest people in your network all tell you to do the same thing…well, you do it. Which is how I found myself in Phoenix, Arizona this week at WorkHuman 2017.

Over the course of the three day event there was a fair bit of talk about WorkHuman being a ‘movement’, and while I can’t think of any movements begun by paid attendees at splashy, corporate-sponsored events, it was a truly special experience, and without doubt the best organized conference I’ve attended. WorkHuman 2018 will be in Austin, Texas, and I plan on being there.

It’s hard to distill 3 days down to one post, but I’m going to try to highlight my biggest take-aways…

How You Should Be Thinking About Your Employer Brand

Employer brand’ means different things to different people. One of the most useful framings of employer brand I’ve heard came from Chinwe Onyeagoro of Great Place to Work. Instead of thinking of your employer brand as the goal of your various employer branding initiatives (which tend to be fairly superficial), instead think of it as the sum of all of your employees’ answers to the question “how was your day?”, asked by their spouses, roommates, or families over dinner. If those answers don’t match the stories that you want to have shape people’s opinions of your organization, then something has to change (within your organization, not the stock photography on your website).

Why Your Employee Engagement Score Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re a Great Place to Work

Something else that struck a chord from Chinwe Onyeagoro’s session was her discussion about the shift in Great Place to Work’s workplace assessment methodology to ensure that recognized employers are offering a consistently great experience to all employees. As Chinwe notes, an average rating of employee experience or engagement at your organization isn’t meaningful if it’s not consistent across all demographic groups and employee populations. If those experience ratings are lower for a pockets of employees (especially based on their gender, age, or minority status), that means that the experience you are offering your employees is excluding people, and that’s a problem.

A Human Workplace Litmus Test

I really enjoyed Jason Lauritsen’s Lightning Talk about using a common sense approach to design more human workplaces: the relationship test. If you’re thinking about developing a program, or designing some aspect of your employee’s experience, ask yourself:  would this help, or hurt, your relationship if you subjected a spouse or friend to it. Design thinking (which is all the rage right now) begins with empathy for one’s users or audience, and the prompt Jason suggests makes that more practical for those unfamiliar with that process.

As he pointed out, we can apply this test to a variety of scenarios, including appreciation. Would we only show our spouse or friends appreciation when they go above and beyond, or do critically important things? If so, we may find ourselves lacking friends and a spouse before long…

All the Talk About Inclusion is…Just Talk, Mostly

I think that if we’re going to talk about human workplaces, inclusion is tablestakes. So, unsurprisingly, it popped up in a variety of sessions and places throughout the conference. Mostly those moments were reminders that we have a long way to go as humans.

Josh Bersin shared the very disappointing statistic, drawn from Bersin/Deloitte research that while 75% of organizations think that they have ‘highly inclusive practices’, only 11% actually do. Absolutely brutal.

Adam Grant outlined that his research and analysis showed that women and minorities are punished for championing diversity at work, while men are lauded for doing so.

Michelle Obama spoke about the importance of small, daily, personal actions to cultivate a more inclusive society and workplace, rather than waiting for a big program or initiative to come along. (Yes, she was incredible)

These and other speakers have left inclusion top of mind for me following the conference. So much of what I’ve seen in organizations focuses on getting ‘diverse’ people in the door, but the real struggle and opportunity seems likely to be found in creating an environment that people feel part of, where their day-to-day experience is consistent with their peers. I don’t have answers, just more questions, and disappointment that the data suggests HR and our organizations are not moving the needle on this.

Rethinking Retention

Another great lightning talk came from Robin Schooling and Bill Boorman. They injected great trench HR perspective, which offered some balance as most presenters came from large corporate environments. They spoke about the importance of giving candidates a realistic preview of your workplace and roles, especially when it’s “sucky”. As someone who once recruited artificial insemination turkey technicians and kill line workers, I get this.

One of the more interesting and thought provoking points from their session was Bill’s assertion that “Retention of employment isn’t important, retention of relationship is.” If we’re serious about our employer brand, and clear on the realities of average tenure, I think this is a logical conclusion. Boomerang employees, or referrals from organizational alumni can be a terrific source of quality hires and contribute to your employer brand, but only if we keep relationships in perspective.

I sidled up and introduced myself to Robin Schooling the next day – she is lovely 🙂

Is a ‘Human Workplace’ Just the Next HR Program?

I was really impressed to see Chuck Blakeman on the agenda at WorkHuman. He’s a major proponent of self-management, which is a fairly disruptive point of view likely at odds with many of the other speakers and vendors present. I applaud Globoforce for inviting his distinctly different perspective on what a human workplace looks like. It’s all too easy at events like these for speakers and vendors to simply rebrand or relabel our usual HR programs to make them sound new and different, when they’re not.

If we’re truly interested in making workplaces more human, then we must acknowledge that they will not all look the same (which large vendors could conceivably view as an obstacle to selling their software or product to as many orgs as possible). Taking the same old processes that HR has been inflicting on our organizations for decades, and making them slightly more user friendly is not a movement. It’s still control, still perpetuates a paternalistic dynamic, and just puts a new, softer coat of paint on the industrial-age practices that many organizations are still adhering to.

Who Sets the Bar for a Human Workplace?

What do we see when we think big about creating human workplaces? Do we ask the humans that work for us what they think? Do we try to get incrementally better than we have been? Do we shoot for the stars, or do we just try to be a little better than our competitors?

At one point during an executive panel discussion, a senior HR person commented that her company had introduced 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. This garnered applause from the audience (well, the non-Canadian ones anyway). Yes, I know that 12 weeks is more than most Americans have, and more than most of her organization’s competitors offer. But it’s not good enough. It’s not.

I love you America, but you know as well as I do that you lag way behind most other developed nations on paid mat leave. Is 12 weeks better than 1, or 2? Yes, it is. But you invited me to a movement!

A human workplace cannot just mean more people-friendly than your competitor. It’s a start, but we need to think bigger about what it really looks like, for all humans.

Great Humans

If I sound critical, it’s only because I expect a lot. And WorkHuman delivered. The humans at WorkHuman (the event staff, attendees, and speakers) were incredible. They made this an amazing experience. There are times that HR can feel like a thankless grind, but to find myself surrounded by smart, passionate, funny people genuinely interested in the same things I am feels like all the success I will ever need. I am stupidly lucky in my professional and personal life right now, and I hope I am contributing to that feeling for others in some small way, even if it’s just sharing my slightly off-kilter thoughts on this blog.

Will I maybe see you next year at WorkHuman?

Read this week:

Firing People: What You Do Versus How You Do It – Bob Sutton: This should be required reading for anyone in a position to make decisions about ending another person’s employment. Too often, we think of the task of letting someone go in terms of our own discomfort, and apply metaphors accordingly. “Just rip off the band-aid; just get through it”. This ignores a critical if uncomfortable touch-point we have with employees leaving our organizations, and the responsibility we have to ensure they are treated with dignity.

IBM’s Remote Work Reversal Is a Losing Battle Against the New Normal – Fast Company: Another example of a large, progressive org rolling back remote work arrangements. I think this is an interesting business move, and of course we can’t be certain what is truly driving it, but as this article points out, it may well be a signal of decline rather than a bold step to reset their innovation and collaboration.

There’s No Such Thing as Big Data in HR – HBR: Excellent and thought-provoking article that breaks down the hype and challenges surrounding the use of big data in HR. A must read. “Some wishful thinkers believe that the application of big data techniques will somehow rid HR of the some of the attributes they don’t like about it, such as the perception that they’re focusing on “soft” issues and not detailing the return on HR-related investments.”

What do you think of when you hear the words “more human workplace”? What makes a conference a valuable experience from your perspective? Anything here that strikes you as interesting? Let me know in the comments!

Image credit: Jasper van der Meij via




2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Loved the idea of how to think about your employer brand Jane but I’m wondering how much discussion there was about the gig economy. Downunder here in Oz while unemployment isn’t high the vast majority of new jobs are casual or part time. this makes it tough for these people to get loans, raise a family or have any sense of employment security. Right now part time work is what 32% of the employed population gets & it’s growing

    June 5, 2017

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