Why the SHRM Conference Matters

shrmSHRM, in addition to sounding kind of hilarious when you say it out loud (do any Shermans out there actually go by Sherm?), also hosts the world’s largest HR conference, which is presently in full swing in Chicago.

This provides an opportunity to ponder the role of HR and of these sorts of gatherings in general. Practically every company has at least someone working in HR, and larger corporations have an entire department. It’s one constant shared by every business, no matter how desparate they may be. And it’s a job that doesn’t radically change depending on where you go. Every company has a different purpose, product, service, philosophy, and culture. But all of them are exactly the same in that they need people to function, and in managing those people, HR professionals are united in their evolving role in the workplace which, no matter where a company’s located or what its size, will be uniform to some extent for the simple fact that people are people, no matter their profession.

And so it is that the SHRM conference is an especially fortunate thing. All of these HR professionals the nation over can gather in one place in order to acknowledge the all-important unity of their work, to hear talks and view products that speak to the cutting edge of the human resources field. There are many conferences like this, expos for certain professions or industries, but this one is special simply because HR is ubiquitous—every company in America could probably send someone to SHRM—but also isolated, in that HR professionals, while crucial, aren’t the main purpose of most of the companies that they’re a part of.

Here HR professionals can gather and, for once, have it be all about them. And what’s nicer than that? Everyone likes to be the center of attention once in a while, and, as HR makes perfectly clear, we’re all people.

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More Than Borrowed Time

timetheft“Time theft” is an increasing concern, but it’s the use of the term itself that I see as something of a sticky issue. It has a negative connotation, obviously. Theft of any kind is (revolutionary concept here) not good. And getting paid for a job that you’re not doing could certainly be described as a kind of theft. But then, there’s some part of it that also plays into the whole management vs. employee divide, which is a perspective that it would probably be better to evolve beyond. Work shouldn’t be a battlefield.

On the contrary, it’s the goal of many of the most successful—and therefore most closely observed and most influential—modern companies to create a highly positive work atmosphere that makes everyone feel like a family or at least a valued member of a team. The employees are treated with respect in the hopes that with low pressure and a feeling of self-worth they’ll do their best. I’m not sure what it’s actually like working in the Google offices, but the popular perception is that it’s a big playground where software geniuses drink smoothies and frolic in technicolor Chuck-e-Cheese-style ball pits until ideas happen.

That’s probably not the case, but I’m sure they like people to think that it is, hence the movie that came out last week. All that said, of course there’s nothing out of the ordinary about businesses keeping track of employee hours—in fact in most cases it’s mandatory that they do so. And why wouldn’t they want to do so with the most efficient, affordable, and technologically advanced means available?

But imagine someplace that treats its workforce with a level of respect reminiscent of—for the purpose of extremes—let’s say the industrial revolution. Or that place Mr. Incredible worked for Vizzini from The Princess Bride. If workers are nothing more than cogs in a machine, then it’s great to have them kept on file in a biometric scanned database. Employees who aren’t happy with their work situation could potentially view a new facial scanning system as an Orwellian measure.

Of course these are just tools, not intrinsically good or bad either way. But that’s the sort of negative perception that might exist. Employee regard is at least a slight concern, seeing as how that might influence the systems that management might choose to make use of. Ultimately we just need to keep in mind the difference between what a term implies and what it literally means. “Time theft” can seem a strange notion when hearing it for the first time, if only because of the way time can be something of an abstract notion, infinite and precious all at once. But in systems that function according to the clock, there are worse things than keeping track of how the seconds are spent.

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Money’s (not) the Motivation, Let’s Change the Conversation

motivationWhat motivates us? No doubt about it, that’s an important question. But while the answer might actually not be that complicated, it is different than conventional wisdom would suggest. To discuss what is crucial, because everyone wants to be motivated and to motivate those for whom they’re responsible.

To say the notion of “working for the weekend” is not the ideal attitude to have in regards to motivation and employment is putting it mildly. Do we really expect employees to do their best work if the thing that entices them is putting in the requisite effort in order to appreciate their leisure time?

Obviously people shouldn’t have a job that makes them feel like over seventy percent of their week is a struggle to make it to two days of relative bliss.

But the issue extends further. It turns out that, for most 21st century jobs, pure monetary incentive is a flat out ineffective method of motivation. As Dan Pink illustrated several years ago in an eye-opening TED Talk (much of which was then literally illustrated in this video), incentives of the “carrot and stick” variety are only effective for simple, almost purely mechanical tasks.

Once more critical thought becomes necessary—and indeed, it’s necessary for the majority of jobs in the modern workplace—bonuses and the like don’t do that much to inspire faster or better work.

Instead, Pink puts forth the notion that money should be provided on the level where employees don’t need to be wholly concerned with their wages. After this level of financial stability is achieved, the best way to motivate is to provide workers with opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This self-determination combined with the chance to get better at a job and a feeling of being part of something larger than oneself all contribute to an intrinsic motivation far more effective than what external forces can manage. Though these methods go against what many companies still view as the established way of doing things, the results indicate that this might very well be the direction in which the workplace needs to go.

By no means does Pink have all of the answers, but for that reason alone his perspective is one well worth understanding.

And for anyone attending this year’s SHRM Conference, Dan Pink will be speaking at 8:30 on the morning of June 18th.

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The Culturing of Workplace Culture

cultureWhen it comes to the workplace, there’s an intangible and unmistakable quality that plays more of a role in determining the relationship between a company and its employees than just about anything else. Broadly defined yet immediately identifiable, it’s the culture of a place that stands out before everything else and leaves the most lasting impression when all else has faded.

“Culture,” of course, is not an easy term to grasp all at once. It includes beliefs, attitudes, rituals, rights, history, rules, and more besides. The individual aspects are almost limitless. Yet when taken all together they form something uniquely overpowering, a feeling that pervades every inch of the culture’s environment. That environment, again, can be tricky to qualify. The size and impact of cultures can vary wildly, from a family unit to a nation—or beyond. Anytime a group of people, bound in some way, shares their lives willingly or otherwise, then at least some sense of a culture develops. One of the clearest examples, it should come as no surprise, is the workplace.

There are things most offices have in common, but more importantly there are differences. How free are employees to determine the relative level of importance of their own tasks? What matters most to the company? How relaxed is the atmosphere? It’s in these distinctions that the divide between a positive and a negative work environment, between a productive or unproductive day, and between excited or disengaged workers can be found.

At its best, workplace culture can be used to make employees feel proud to be where they are, with an organic incentive to do their best simply because they’re at a place which they feel deserves nothing less. We have a natural urge to create distinctions in our mind, to feel loyalty to some entities while cordoning off others as, well, just that: The Other. It only makes sense for businesses to take advantage of these basic workings of the human mind to create a company culture that works better for everyone involved, with employees at every level glad to go to work not simply because it pays the bills, but because they’re doing worthwhile work for a place that matters, that makes them feel like they belong to a culture that they can call their own, in addition to whatever cultures they consider themselves a part of.

The workweek makes up a huge percentage of most people’s lives. There’s a good chance that they’ll put more time into whatever company they work for than many other communities or cultures that they consider deeply fulfilling. If the company can create a culture that provides this sort of satisfaction, there’s really no limit to the potential benefits. People crave things to believe in, and to be passionate about. The luckiest get to make a career out of their passions. For companies to establish themselves as places that inspire and fulfill passion would result in a greater percentage of the workforce feeling like they’re living their dreams, as fanciful as that may sound. And when it comes to incentives for doing good work, nothing can truly compare.

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