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Jun 8, 2022

Back in March, after attending my first HR conference for two years (HR Transform in Las Vegas), I was left with an overwhelming feeling that HR conferences were finally ‘back’, as we moved into a post-pandemic era.

Just recently, I was in Las Vegas again for the first Unleash America conference since 2019, and what I felt was starting to happen in March has become a full-blown trend in May: People really are heading back to live events, and they are, as the saying goes, “voting with their feet.”

May really was the month when things seemed to take off. Conferences that took place included WorldatWork Rewards and Workhuman in Atlanta, as well as Josh Bersin’s new Irresistible Global Conference for HR leaders and their teams at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, to name just a few.

In fact, there were so many scheduled events that it was hard not to think, “hey, maybe things ARE starting to get back to normal.”

Only time will tell, but if you judge by the enthusiasm of the attendees I saw in Las Vegas at both Unleash and HR Transform, most people seem anxious to return to something that resembles 2019 again.

The conference that understood what people wanted

The people who put on Unleash America 2022 seem to have understood this. They went through a lot to stage the event, including moving it in February from the original date in March and pushing it back to May. You don’t see conferences making last minute changes like that very often. Add in the ever-changing health protocols due to the easing of Covid restrictions and you can see the challenges that the UK-based organizers were struggling with.

But they stuck with it and pulled off a pretty good event in spite of all the difficulties. Attendance figures are hard to pin down, but one estimate was that Unleash had 2,000 attendees total, including vendors. To my eye, it didn’t seem to be as large a crowd as HR Transform in March, but that was a more general human resources event and Unleash had a narrower HR Tech focus.

All’s well that ends well, of course, and it went well enough that Unleash’s organizers started pushing the 2023 Unleash America event – scheduled to be held in Las Vegas between April 26-27 at the MGM Grand, before this year’s conference had closed. The organizers put it like this, “At every Unleash America conference, we look to bring our passion and expertise for all things HR tech to all of you and after the success of this year’s event, we can’t wait to grow further and see you all in 2023.”

But while next year’s event is still to come, what took my eye in 2022? Here are some of the highlights of Unleash America 2022 that jumped out at me:

1) Keynote speakers still matter

The HR Transform conference last March took a very brave and unusual approach to speakers: no keynotes. Although there is nothing that says an event MUST have keynoters, they tend to be people with a good message, or are high profile, or have something timey and compelling to talk about. You hit the jackpot when you get a speaker with all three. The kickoff keynote speaker on day one of Unleash was Mark Blyth, the Eastman professor of political economy and director of the William R. Rhodes Center at Brown University.

Born in Scotland, Blyth speaks with a fairly strong Scottish brogue, but he had a lively (and timely) presentation on “The Future of Work.” His research focuses on the causes of stability and change in the economy “and why people continue to believe stupid economic ideas despite buckets of evidence to the contrary.”

During Covid-19 he said that “HR got much more complex but (also) became more central to value creation than ever,” and he added, “while the fundamentals of HR remain the same, how we adapt to them is changing.” He was a good kick-in-the-pants speaker to get everybody going on day one1, and that’s what you really want a strong keynote for.

The day two keynote was Peter Hinssen, co-founder & partner at nexxworks, a Platform-As-A-Service provider that develops, designs and manages cloud-based computing environments. He was just as engaging as Blyth. His talk on “The Never Normal” was fast-paced and pertinent to what everyone has been experiencing. “There is no new normal anymore,” he said, “and the three things to remember about The Never Normal is that everything is “non-linear, super-fluid, and hyper-connected and moving faster than ever before.”

Hinssen ended with this little nugget too: “It’s time for HR to step up to the plate.” Needless to say, it was an important message and proved yet again just why keynotes at a conference like Unleash continue to be important for attendees to hear.

2) “How I solved it” is still a conference staple

A great many people attend HR conferences for one thing — advice on how to handle a difficult workforce issue they’re dealing with. That’s a big part of the value HR pros get from attending events, and Unleash 2022 was no different in that regard.

Two talent leaders from Credit Karma [Ashleigh Anderson and Mary Sharp], talked about how they restructured their workforce in 2020 when they had “an overnight revenue crash,” in an engaging session entitled “Solving the Talent Shortage From the Inside Out.” Their big challenge? It was when they needed to move 10% of their workforce into jobs they needed filled but that current employees might not have the skills for. It was a huge challenge that involved re-skilling and up-skilling people into new jobs, and at the end, the two talent leaders said “everyone at Credit Karma believes in talent mobility now.”

This seems to be a growing trend for many, and I suspect that we’ll hear a lot about agility, re-skilling, and yes, talent mobility in the months and years to come, because employee skillsets are going to have to become a lot more fluid to deal with what employers are going to need moving ahead.

3) Employee listening may be something to focus on

This Unleash presentation by RJ Milnor, global head of people analytics at Uber, seemed intriguing. The title certainly was — Continuous Response: How employee listening improves workforce and business outcomes. Employee listening? To all those drivers? I gotta hear about that.

But it wasn’t about the drivers, who are all independent contractors (as far as I know), but about the 22,000 plus Uber employees worldwide who are NOT working out of their car. As Milnor put it, the goal was “putting those employees at the center of the conversation,” and the journey over the past two years has been about focusing on what employees need when they need it.

Uber figured out that they needed to listen more closely to what employees were telling them, and that the three main goals were that listening was,

  1. Continuous
  2. Responsive (that is, they needed to have a dialogue and not just one-way conversations)
  3. Intentional

Its goal was to “measure what you plan to act on,” arguing that: “measuring employee experience is something you CAN act on.”

Milnor explained how the annual employee survey and other feedback devices changed to ad-hoc surveys and an annual census with a continuous learning process with monthly sample surveys as well.

Listening more, Uber found, “drives the employee experience but also helps build trust in the organization.” How much trust? Uber found a 14% increase in trust in the company, while 17% more employees believed action would take place as a result of their survey and feedback.

It was an intriguing presentation, and it made me think about communicating and listening to people in the workforce in an entirely different light.

Final thoughts

Here’s my take:

Unleash America is only the second conference I’ve attended since October 2019, but like HR Transform in March, one can’t help feel the enthusiasm and happiness attendees felt by finally getting out and attending a live event again.

I suspect that will be how it goes for a while, and this feeling will continue as many more people start to come out and take the big step to attend a conference again.

Some thought that live conferences would not come back post-pandemic, but as others also noted during lockdown, virtual events may work as a stop-gap measure but they simply don’t take the place of a live, in-person event. Those who suggested that virtual events would become the new normal are probably the people who have a vested interest in keeping events virtual. They really want to believe that people will suddenly stop getting together in person.

Yes, virtual events might be a lot cheaper and easier — no traveling or other such irritants to fuss with — but people who attended Unleash, HR Transform, and any of the other live events held this spring seem to have rediscovered what we all knew but somehow had forgotten – that virtual events just don’t capture the essence of a real conference where people can actually get together.

We were all cooped up and restricted from other people for two years plus. If nothing else, my recent experience with HR conferences proves what we all know to be true: that people are tired of feeling locked up; they long for personal interaction; and they are willing to do a lot to have it again.