For one week every June, the most critical place for HR professionals to be is not at their desk, in a team room or even in the office. The most important place to be is at the center of the HR universe: the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) annual conference and expo. My firm attends and has a booth there every year, and it’s a tradition for good reason.
Picture this: 20,000 HR professionals walking around with badges, T-shirts, buttons and swag emblazoned with slogans like “I love HR” and — in a clever nod to this year’s conference location — “What happens in Vegas gets reported to HR.” Attendance was essential, and not just because of celebrity keynote speakers. With hundreds of exhibitors and sessions tackling topics ranging from workplace strategy to compliance to business acumen and metrics, this was ground zero for the future of HR. The atmosphere was electric, buzzing with best-practice conversations and strategies for tackling the most challenging candidate recruitment market in over a decade. What a huge miss for the companies that didn’t send their HR team.
I get it: Conferences can feel like a dime a dozen these days, and choosing which ones to send your team to can be tricky. The best conferences aren’t inexpensive, either, because passes, badges, hotel rooms, airfare and meals add up, especially for small and medium-sized businesses keeping a close eye on the budget. Plus, there’s the cost of lost productivity that occurs when team members are out of the office. A single-minded focus on these numbers, however, can cause you to miss out on the long-term gains associated with conference attendance.
Why Conference Attendance Is Essential for Employee Development
My argument isn’t just for the SHRM conference, either. I’m sharing my recent conference experience because of a surprising trend I’ve noticed recently among companies of all sizes: There’s a reluctance to invest in employee development, including conference attendance. It’s connected back to a belief that shrinking employee tenure means any development costs beyond the most essential are a bad investment. If an employee is going to leave the company after just a few years, why invest in their development only to have them take those new skills straight to a competitor?
This is a dangerous mindset that can do serious damage to company culture and employee morale, and hurt future business growth. Not only does employee development pay immediate dividends, but investing in employees can also help reduce flight risk, keeping your best talent in-house. Companies across all industries are facing an employee engagement crisis that’s exacerbated by low unemployment rates. When someone is disaffected and disengaged from their current position, they’re far more likely to jump ship. That’s why industry conferences cannot be optional. These conferences are a key part of the employee life cycle experience. Here’s why:
1. They help you attract and retain exceptional hires. Employees want to work for companies that invest in them. Sending your entire HR team to a major conference sends a powerful signal to your current employees and prospective hires: You truly care about your employees’ professional growth and long-term success. At conferences, HR teams walk around with company nametags on, a great visual advertising tool that boosts your employer brand.
2. They spark innovation and big ideas. Conferences are an opportunity to challenge assumptions about industry trends, swap best practices and get inspired by fresh solutions. The learning benefits go far beyond the organized sessions. When you have 20,000 forward-thinking leaders in a single space, this creates a unique opportunity for transformative connections. I find it’s the casual conversations that can be the most impactful. These are the ones that occur while grabbing a fresh cup of coffee, browsing the expo hall or waiting for a new session to start. Some of the most important connections I’ve made have been through these casual moments. Don’t underestimate the value of putting your people in the right space at the right moment.
3. They keep your best people excited. It’s easy for employees to fall into a daily pattern of rushing from one urgent task to the next. This leaves very little room for big-picture thinking and can lead to employee burnout. Think of attending a conference as a palate cleanser. Like a vacation, a conference is an opportunity to step away from the office and recharge. This time away, however, occurs in an environment where your employees are surrounded by the best and brightest in their industry.
Don’t underestimate just how motivating and inspiring the right conference can be. My team and I returned from SHRM ready to build the future of HR in our own company. Imagine the ripple effect this energy and enthusiasm can have for your organization.