WorkHuman is a conference that encourages and celebrates bringing the whole human in to the workplace. Or as seen on their website, “Globoforce pioneered the WorkHuman movement to galvanize leaders worldwide to harness the transformative power of people for the next generation of HR.” (It may be billed as an HR conference, but let me tell you, this conference has something for everybody.)
As with any conference that’s been running for a while, groups of familiar faces begin to form. In it’s fourth year, WorkHuman is starting to see the formation of these communities. It’s an important part of the experience – we get to know each other, and hopefully, stay connected throughout the year to help inspire and motivate each other to create a more human-centered workplace.
It’s my third year attending WorkHuman, and I feel a twinge of regret that I can’t claim myself as a lifer in this movement (I missed out on the first year). I made a joke recently in the conference chat room – I feel about the same as I did when I started first grade at a school where many kids had been there since kindergarten. (I’m so glad I’ve clearly grown since then.)
This joke, however, got me thinking about what my first year was like with many returning attendees. I thought about how hard it was to “break in” and find people to talk with – even at a highly inclusive event like this one. In the hopes that this helps even one person find a table to join at the party, or find someone to talk with in between sessions, I’ve written this list of tips for oldbies and newbies alike.
1/ Give Yourself Permission to Ask Deeper Questions
“So, what do you do?” It’s built in. Knee-jerk. We just ask it. It’s understandable. And at conferences like WorkHuman, sometimes it’s not so bad. A lot of people are in similar roles and are eager to find other people in their line of work who are as excited about building a human-centric workplace as they are.
But it also tends to lead to a lighter conversation, and it can be harder to connect. But what to say instead? It can be hard try to imagine up other questions that may be less familiar.
Thankfully, there are people out there who’ve dedicated their lives to researching just this sort of thing. Vanessa Van Edwards has a fabulous list on this topic that you can check out here. Some of my favorites (especially for WorkHuman) are:
/ Working on anything exciting lately?
/ Have you been to an event like this before?
/ What was the high-point and low-point of your day so far?
And as you continue the conversation, she continues with questions that can help you dig deeper:
/ If you had to pick a character in a book, movie, or TV show who is most similar to you, who would you choose? Why?
/ When you were growing up what was your dream job? Is any part of that still true?
The great thing about questions like those last two, is that they invite people to be as open as they are comfortable with. If someone feels awkward answering the character question, they can go with an easy answer (“Oh, I’d be Superman, I’d love to fly”), or they can really dig in (“I’ve thought a lot about what it would be like to be Roland, from Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. He’s so deeply connected to his people, and yet he has to make life and death decisions regularly…”). It lets your conversation partner maintain a sense of security and still opens the door for deeper connections to form.
Here’s my own observation from HR-related conversations. Sometimes conversations about hiring questions can turn into deeper conversations in a group. I will bring up one of my favorite questions, “what animal would you be, and why” and how it helps me understand interviewees … and then very often, someone will ask me, “what animal would YOU be?” and the conversation digs deeper into each other’s beliefs and values. So utilizing your own methods for connecting with people at work in your HR role can help you connect with people at conferences, too.
2/ Start Conversations in Easy Places
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at receptions and lunches, where there’s a LOT of people and the focus is on longer conversations. But some of my favorite conversations (and ultimately friendships) at conferences have started in the simplest places. Start up a conversation in line with the person next to you while you wait for your room to open, or while you wait for your food at the food cart (#Austin!). Ask questions of people milling about in WorkHuman Central (the small activities in this area can be a great way to comfortably start chatting with someone). Go on some of the informally organized activities (if there’s a jogging group, or a trip to see the bats, or a yoga group).
3/ Leave Room For Newbies
This tip is especially important for returning attendees. Particularly at a conference like WorkHuman, where people tend to really connect with each other, our body language will reflect this connection. You see that friend you met 3 or 4 years ago, you give them a hug, and you start talking. Your body is fully turned towards that person and you really engage. Maybe you’re with a group standing around a tiny table, and you all lean in and really invest in each other and the conversation.
First, this is amazing. It’s a great sign that the connections being made are having an impact. But it’s also sending a physical body-language message to others in the room (especially newbies) that there’s no room for them with you – which, chances are, is not the case! I’ve seen this body language often at conferences where people are really connecting. So whenever you can, always make space in a group for someone else to join. Let your body language tell others “Hey, we’re safe, we see you, and we’d love to talk to you!”
And if you’re a newbie, watch body language to help you find people to talk to. If two people are squared up and talking to each other intently, it’s going to be harder to break into their conversation. But if you see their bodies are slightly turned out towards the room, you’ll have a much easier time walking up to that pair and introducing yourself, and maybe asking them one of the questions above.
And if a group has left space at a table, it’s there for you. Take the space – you’ll be glad you did.
Have a great trip to WorkHuman, everybody! I hope to meet you there.