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Mar 24, 2022

Recently, I was finally able to do something I wondered if I would ever do again — attend a live, in-person HR conference.

The fact that I managed to do it in Sin City, aka Las Vegas, was, as they say, the icing on the cake.

I attended the annual HR Transform conference (March 14-16th, at the The Cosmopolitan Hotel) – a conference that, like so many, had been derailed since 2019 due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

And if there’s a big takeaway from the 2022 event, it’s this: although we may never return to what passed for ‘normal’ before the pandemic, this conference makes you believe we may actually be getting close.

The vibe of the conference was captured perfectly by Samara Jaffe, co-founder & executive director of HR Transform, when she opened on day one by talking about “the magic of having real, face-to-face conversations… ones that you just can’t have virtually.” Boy did I agree.

Don’t judge events today by 2019 standards

THAT alone seemed to be the big draw for many of the 1,500 people who attended the event, because HR Transform 2022 felt a lot like whatever the last conference was that people attended in October 2019, when the last HR Transform took place.

But Jaffe pointed out that “even conferences — and conference organizers — are going to need time to get back on track,” and, that you can’t judge things today by pre-lockdown standards.

That advice is something we all would do well to remember, because as nice as the event was, we all know that we’re just one government mandate from it all going away again. It’s a sobering thought we should keep in mind because nothing has been terribly definitive in the U.S. since the federal government asked us to give them “15 days to flatten the curve” two years ago.

Of course, there have been other live HR conferences since 2019.

The big SHRM national conference was held last September (instead of June) in Las Vegas, but only had about 8,000 attendees compared to the usual 15,000-20,000 or more that SHRM usually gets when they meet in Sin City. The HR Technology conference was held in Vegas the same month but I found that, for some reason, the organizers of HR Tech had decided to deploy health protocols that were more stringent than either the State of Nevada or Clark County were requiring at the time. I’m not sure what the attendance was, but based on the SHRM numbers, last fall’s HR Tech had probably no more than 40-50% of the 5,000 attendees they usually had pre-lockdown.

This month’s HR Transform was one of the very first events staged since the mask mandates expired in most states over the last few weeks, with Workhuman, Unleash America, WorldatWork and a lot of other conferences still to come as the spring conference season rolls on.

Conference takeaways

One obvious change at HR Transform was that the first morning was full of panel discussions with not a keynote speaker in sight.

In fact, there were virtually no sessions with solitary speakers at all – and the only one I attended that had a single speaker was titled Evolving Workplace Norms with Mai Ton, chief people officer of Kickstarter. Although there were a number of good sessions, the one with Mai Ton was the best I attended during the entire HR Transform conference.

The very first session on the first full day of HR Transform was NOT a big name keynote speaker with some larger-than-life message to impart, but a panel discussion with four venture capitalists titled Funding the Future of HR: The Venture Capital Perspective. It wasn’t the usual kind of opening session I was used to at an HR event, but it was pragmatic and informative – and maybe that matters more right now than somebody peddling a new book.

One thing that jumped out at me was how many presenters referenced or mentioned “the lockdown,” “the pandemic,” or “the last two years” even in small ways that made it clear that the Covid lockdown will define our work and the rest of our lives the way the Great Depression and Word War II defined the lives of our parents and grandparents.

There were lots of interesting, insightful comments from the many speakers and panelists I heard at HR Transform. Here are a few that jumped out at me:

1) The Best case for having people in an office again

This came from Mala Singh, EVP and chief people officer of Electronic Arts (EA), who said that there’s a lot of “creative energy that comes from people working together in person… working remotely simply doesn’t match that.” But she also added that some 60% of EA workers want to work from home today, including the highest performing ones, and almost no one wanted to do that pre-pandemic.

2) Concentrate on employee experience

On the same panel, Uzair Qadeer, chief people officer at Carbon Health, said organizations should “abandon human resources and focus instead on employee experience.” He asked: “what can we do to make the candidate experience and employee experience a powerful one?” Qadeer added that, “HR was built around keeping people from being hurt. Now, we simply need to help people.”

3) Numbers do the talking

Another panelist — Beth Grous, chief people officer of Tripadvisor, offered up these telling statistics about her workforce:

  • Except for rare events, 46% of her employees NEVER want to come to the office again.
  • Another 42% only want to return to the office 1-2 days a week.

Those numbers, she said, add up to about 90% of her workforce who either don’t want to come into the office at all or on a very limited basis. “We’re living in a world of ambiguity these days,” she said. “There’s no playbook for this.”

Here are few other quick takes heard in various conference sessions:

  • “Empathy” is the big buzz word for leaders today and was mentioned in a number of sessions. This is THE big thing that employees and workers are looking for, and managers that don’t have it simply won’t be successful.
  • A key for managers and leaders, according to Stephen Bailey, CEO and co-founder of ExecOnline, is to “be willing to be vulnerable and admit what you don’t know.”
  • Some companies are now giving employee stipends for wellness, childcare, and an employee home office.
  • “Re-culturing” is a key process. Will the culture and cultural norms that got us here get us to where we now want to be.
  • There is a greater focus on wellbeing today and it’s now a business-critical issue.
  • Pixar’s onboarding process lasts for “more than a year,” according to Reema Batnagar, VP people team at Pixar Animation Studios. Co-panelist Torin Ellis asked the audience about the length of their onboarding, and no one said they had one that lasted more than six months. Ellis said that you’re not TRULY serious about onboarding and building great employees who will stay with you unless you are onboarding as long as Pixar.
  • On an employee’s last day at Pixar, departing employees share and describes their best moment at Pixar with the entire company via email.

A conference that finally felt like normal

Here’s my take:

I’ve gone to literally hundreds of HR and talent management conferences over the last 20 years. During that time I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the terribly ugly at events from Boston to San Diego. But, I have never attended a conference where the feeling of joy for just being there was as evident as it was for this year’s HR Transform in Las Vegas.

That’s not to say that all the content was great (although a lot of it was very good), but that the conference organizers understood that just putting on a solid, highly professional and informative event that felt a lot like 2019 would help attendees see that their lives were getting back to some kind of normal again. I wouldn’t have predicted this was possible even six weeks ago. Kudos goes to executive director, Samara Jaffe and her HR Transform team in managing to pull it off.