Where’s Work+Life Flex on SHRM’s National Conference Agenda? Essentially Missing.

The other day the Society for Human Resource Management’s national conference brochure arrived.  I opened the front cover and read:

“…This year’s conference is programmed to provide the most comprehensive line-up  of thought-leaders, practitioners, and executives to interact with you on some of the most critical issues facing HR professionals today, with topics covering such key issues are:

  • Talent Management and Staffing
  • Employee Engagement and Morale
  • Legislative Compliance
  • Communication Strategies
  • Layoffs, Downsizing and RIFs
  • Compensation and Benefits
  • Business Competencies
  • Leadership/Career Development
  • Healthcare Strategy and Reform
  • Continuity Planning
  • Global HR”

“Great,” I thought, “I wonder who’s presenting on work+life flexibility as a powerful strategy to help organizations and individuals tackle these challenges and opportunities.”  Given the broad business impacts of strategic flexibility it made sense that it would have prominent placement in the program.

So I looked through the printed conference brochure.  Workplace flexibility.  Nothing.  Work-life flexibility.  Nothing.  Work flexibility, or perhaps Flexible Work Arrangements.  Nothing.  I was confused.

Let’s go to the computer.  Maybe it’s mentioned online in the more detailed conference agenda.   I started with the large, plenary or “Mega” sessions.  Hmmm, nothing again.  Even in the mega sessions that cover issues where flexibility is very relevant–engagement, HR trends, leadership, retention, wellness, change management, motivation and balance—it is not mentioned …. Keep looking.

Go to the concurrent sessions.  Searching…Searching…Searching.  Finally, buried in over 100 concurrent sessions held across three days, I found one presentation that specifically discusses flexibility.  It’s under the International HR section and is entitled, “ Flexible Work Arrangements to Promote Organizational Diversity,” or how the increased use of flexible work arrangements expanded the talent pool in India.  Okay, one is better than none, but that’s it.

What’s going on?  Some may argue, “But, Cali, you aren’t counting the two concurrent presentations in the Employment Law and Legislation sessions that deal with caregiver discrimination and FMLA Jeopardy.”  No, because that’s not what I was looking for.  I was searching for the inclusion of work+life flexibility in the broader discussions of how companies and people will thrive and compete in a post-recession landscape.

For work+life flexibility to become part of a business’ day-to-day operating model, Human Resources can’t be the sole owner and advocate.  A majority of the top 100 CFOs interviewed for a survey that we co-sponsored with BDO Seidman in March, 2008 concurred.  They believed that direct line involvement was necessary for flexibility to succeed.

That being said, HR is a critical partner in the development, implementation and execution of a flexibility strategy.  It is often the first place that the need hits the radar screen as a solution to address talent and employee work+life fit issues.  HR is a critical entry point for the discussion of the broader strategic applications within the business.  This is why the fact that there was only one presentation specifically discussing flexibility buried deep in the concurrent sessions of the national conference the Society for Human Resource Management gives me pause.

It doesn’t bode well for increasing the effectiveness of work+life flexibility inside of organizations.   In other words, many organizations have formal flexible work arrangement policies, but flexibility isn’t an effective part of the way the business and its people operate day-to-day.  This is unfortunate because flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed is more important than ever.

Moving beyond confusion and shock, I began to ponder why work+life flexibility had such a minor role in the SHRM conference agenda?   Here are some of my hypotheses.  Please feel free to chime in and share yours:

  1. SHRM doesn’t think it is important. (I find that hard to believe, especially since in May,2009 SHRM released an entire policy statement on flexible work arrangements).
  2. SHRM thinks it’s important, but only enough to warrant one concurrent session solely focused on talent applications. (Again, I find this hard to believe but perhaps SHRM doesn’t see or understand the direct strategic relevance beyond a programmatic or legal application even though flexibility does directly address most if not all of the critical issues targeted in the agenda).
  3. SHRM thinks flexibility is important, but doesn’t really know what more can be done beyond the policy, program and benefit implementation of formal flexible work arrangements and government mandated regulations. (This is the theory that makes the most sense to me.  It is a matter of mindset and perspective.  If SHRM doesn’t think flexibility is part of the strategic conversation related to engagement, creating great workplaces, leadership, retention, change, global talent, and motivation, what more is there to do beyond implementing a policy and understanding the legal issues? )

But that’s just it, there is still so much to be done to move flexibility from a “nice to have” policy or program to a core strategic lever. This is why its exclusion from the SHRM conference agenda is a disappointing missed opportunity.  HR professionals won’t leave the conference:

  • Understanding how to make the business case for greater flexibility to their line leadership.
  • Knowing how to support and promote broader change management efforts necessary to make flexibility part of the operating model.
  • Prepared help leaders and employees understand their roles in creating win-win innovative solutions able to respond to changes in market climate, and
  • Able to articulate how the strategic, business-based application of flexibility can help their organizations and employees successfully manage the challenges and opportunities in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.

Do you think work+life flexibility should be more prominently featured in the SHRM conference agenda?  Why do you think it’s not?  What do you think this missed opportunity means for the advancement of strategic flexibility inside of organizations?


5 thoughts on “Where’s Work+Life Flex on SHRM’s National Conference Agenda? Essentially Missing.

  1. Cali
    Your shock is not a surprise to me. We helped to spearhead the landmark Ford Foundation sponsored research on work-life challenges. I wrote a book: ReInventing Work: Relinking Life and LIvelihood to Benefit Business and Staff that teaches managers and teams how to address work-life as a business strategy. I have been asked to speak at numerous conferences. I have submitted proposals to SHRM but have never been selected to speak. It has been interesting to me over the years to find that when I speak at conferences with line managers, I receive immediate requests to assist them. When I speak at more HR oriented conferences folks find the work interesting but I receive few follow-up requests. My conclusions: line managers feel the pain on a day-to-day basis and want to find solutions to what they see as a business challenge — finding ways to keep their staff engaged and working at optimum productivity levels. Line manages are willing to take measured risks to solve their problems. Line manages see first-hand how work-life challenges impact their ability to achieve their business goals.

    Is HR making itself less relevant by ignoring the challenges of line managers? Do we bypass HR and go directly to the line to help managers address their needs?

    Barbara Miller, President, Artemis Management Consultants

    1. Barbara,

      I hear you. I too get the same immediate “I get it” from line managers and leadership when I talk about the broad business impacts from a strategic approach to work+life flexibility that’s part of the day-to-day operating model. But the challenge is 1) getting in front of line leaders to share a solution that most don’t even know exists if HR isn’t bringing it to their attention, and 2) effective implementation in terms of aligning rewards, evaluation, recognition, paid time off policies, training, etc. if HR doesn’t see the urgency and relevance to all of the talent, retention, diversity, engagement issues they are “tasked” with.

      Yes, I think HR is missing a HUGE opportunity to have a seat at the table to solve the business challenges that line is grappling with by not championing a strategic, business-based approach to flexibility. And, yes, as much as I wish it weren’t this way, we are going to have to find other avenues outside of HR to get to the business people. That is unless we can get HR to see the opportunity, understand the process to make flexibility real (and it’s NOT about programs and policies) and help them make the business case to the line.

      Thank you so much for your insight. You are a true pro.

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