AWLP 2013: What’s in Store in Baltimore

Although this is primarily a blog about writing, I occasionally veer off-topic to write about my other area of expertise: work-life effectiveness. Last year at around this time I published an interview with Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, in which she described their upcoming annual event—known at the time as an “un-conference.” The post was very well-received, as was the event, so last week I called Kathie up to find out what was in store for this year’s, scheduled for late February in Baltimore. Here’s how it went:

I see you’re calling this event a forum again. Is it another “un-conference?”

We’ve dropped that label. I think we’ve made our point. We can show we’re different by what we’re doing, rather than by what we call it.

Actually, the agenda looks pretty different from last year’s.

Every one of our forums is quite different. We listen to the feedback we get every year. This year, two very important recommendations came to the fore. One was, “Can we have new blood, can we hear from companies that are not the usual suspects?”

And the other thing people told us, which is a big overarching driver this year, is, “Last year was all about talking about the future of work. Let’s stop talking about what work will look like and let’s make it happen. Give us tools. Give us people and practices so we can go get it done.”

So we’ve brought in some very different companies [more on that below] and a big theme running through the whole forum this year is tools. We’ve also got a different spin from most conferences because maximum interactivity is a big priority. We don’t want the usual workshop format, the talking heads.

So tell me about the tools.

Well, we’re starting with Ellen Kossek who will present the first tool, the work-life indicator, and going on from there…

And the work-life indicator is…?

You may know the book she published a few years ago, CEO of Me. It’s all about diagnosing yourself into one of four quadrants based on how you manage your own work-life boundaries. She’s partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership, in North Carolina, to create an assessment tool called the work-life indicator. You take a ten minute survey that assesses how you manage the boundaries between work and family. On the basis of that you get a report with tips on increasing your effectiveness in all spheres.

So we’re inviting up to 30 people to sign up for a pre-conference session. Anyone can sign up but there is an obligation. They have to take this assessment online in advance. Their results are sent to the CCL, which will analyze them and create personal reports for each participant. Ellen will come to the session armed with people’s reports, hand them out, and the session is all about getting your feedback and then a discussion about how to use this organizationally with managers and employees.  So that’s a super-powered tool.

By the way, anyone can do one of these work-life indicators any time but it costs about $30. We’re covering the cost for people who do it at the forum, because we think work-life people should be the first to know what their own work-life management issues are.

What are some other tools?

There are a couple sessions with Leslie Hammer and Erin Kelly from the Work, Family and Health Network, who are going to be talking about their very messy interventions in real organizations. They’re going to talk about the work they’ve been doing as part of this huge National Institutes of Health funded project with many different private companies and industries involved. They survey what’s going on in real organizations, change some things and then measure the change. And what’s radical about what they’re doing is that they’re not just looking at behavioral change, they’re down at the level of biometrics.

Biometrics? Can you elaborate?

They go in and do interventions—train managers and employees for some kind of change, often around flexibility—and they collect biometrics on people. One of the things I think is pretty fascinating is they’re detecting changes at the biometric level sometimes independent of behavioral change, which can lag quite a bit.

What kind of biometrics are they collecting?

Well, cholesterol, for one: good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, total cholesterol. Cardiac rates. And then there’s one study they’ve done of low-wage workers in interaction with their supervisors where they did saliva tests to measure cortisol, the stress hormone. They’ve done some fascinating work where they’ve been able to get cortisol readings of employees who’ve had interactions with their supervisors at work and then look at the cortisol levels of their children 24 hours later and can see the impact of stress.

So we’re looking at work-family interaction at the organic level. That’s what so radical about this. These are the kinds of measures that we work-life people have been looking for. And you know, many, many companies are already collecting biometrics of their workers as part of health intervention initiatives. Why couldn’t work-life people give them the tools and information they need to make new connections with it? Not just, “ok, we know who’s got diabetes, let’s have a diabetes seminar,” or “we know who’s smoking, so let’s get people to stop smoking.”

Okay, hold up. The cortisol is amazing and it also makes sense that there’d be a direct connection between employees’ interactions at work and their cortisol levels and even their families’ cortisol levels. But are they also finding connections with things like cholesterol?

Yes! A lot of this research was presented at last year’s Work and Family Researchers Network conference. There are several notable studies showing what work-life people have been asserting forever: that it’s all about stress reduction and as you add more flexible work practices and culturally embed it (in other words, to the degree that you’re not just publishing policies but you’re changing people’s work practices), cholesterol improves. Cardiac measures show a beneficial impact, too. This is what I mean by radical: we’re now getting to the point where we can actually measure, at the body level, the impact of what we’re doing.

That’s totally incredible.

When I said tools, I meant tools.

Are companies part of these presentations or is it mostly going to be researchers?

Real companies have been a big part of the project Erin Kelly and Leslie Hammer are presenting, but they aren’t going to be involved in that presentation. But that session’s going to be followed by four different workshops about transformational change with four specific companies. These are other companies, other practices, so we can expose people to multiple tools and practices.

And also this year the number of participants in our Work-Life Seal of Distinction, which we launched last year, more than doubled. Fifty-four companies got through our threshold and got the Seal and a lot of them will be at the forum. We’ve invited the top 10, who have the most remarkable things going on, to show their tools and solutions in an Innovation Showcase.

So that’s going to be some kind of exhibition?

Yes, like a poster session, on opening night. Our three Innovation Excellence award-winners will be there, too.  One of them is State Street Bank. They have a fabulous twist on flexibility where it’s their managers who go about tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, you need some help.”

Wow. That’s unusual.

It’s an antidote to what we hear all the time: “How do you get managers involved?” This turns the whole thing on its head.

And then there’s Banco Santader.  It’s this Spanish Bank that captured our attention because they’ve literally built the perfect work environment for work-life. They built it ten miles outside of Madrid. It’s got everything from a church to a clinic and now they’re working on a forest. They have ISO-certified child care—have you ever heard of ISO certification for a child care center in this country? They’re pushing the boundaries like we’ve never seen.

Wait, did you say they’re building a forest?

Well they’re not building a forest. They built a city, and they’ve got all the internal stuff done and now they’re working on the outside environment for employees, with walking paths, etc: the natural world brought to the workplace. It’s extraordinary.

Then, as we were hearing from them and looking at what they’re doing, we found out that Zappos is about to do the same thing out in San Francisco. So this is not as far-fetched as it might seem as first.

And then our third Innovative Excellence winner is the USDA, a government agency. So these will all be more solutions and tools. We’re exposing people to as much as we can. I think people’s heads will be spinning.

Who else is presenting?

We’ve got Cali Williams Yost, who just published a new book about personal work-life effectiveness, and Theresa Hopke, who’ll be leading a best practice sharing session, and a session by the Red Cross about disaster preparedness. And then, as I said, some big and small companies and some other groups, like Bright Horizons.

And it’s really exciting, we’re accomplishing our objective, which is that a lot of the people attending the forum, and exhibitors, are ones that none of us would identify as being in the work-life field. Some of them are names you know, that just haven’t been involved in the work-life world. Some of them you’ve never heard of. For the first time, I’m in the position of not recognizing more than three quarters of our audience this year. This is a whole new field of energy and activity and I think it’s wonderful.

Last year’s forum was pretty small. This one sounds bigger.

We try, deliberately, to keep it reasonably intimate. I can promise you it won’t be a 500-person conference. I think the number will land somewhere between 75-100. Not so huge so you can get lost, but big enough so you have a strong influx of ideas.

Who should come to this conference, if they haven’t already signed up?

I wouldn’t label the kinds of people who should come, I think it’s going to be a very interesting, eye-opening look at ways to connect the dots between functions. Anyone who is really involved in talent management and people strategies and workplace effectiveness. There are health care people coming, communications people, general heads of HR.

That’s really what AWLP is all about: we cut across boundaries: universities, corporations, the federal government, hospitals… And we also don’t stay in a box about work functions. We tend to be bridge-builders.  In fact, ideally people should come with a team that might include several different practitioners, because some of these tools are pretty sophisticated and will require involvement across organizational functions.

Thanks, Kathie. I’ll include a link for anyone who wants to sign up. See you in Baltimore!

And here it is: 2013 AWLP Work-Life Forum

The Working Mother “100 Best” application deadline is around the corner. Need some last minute help?

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The Uncanny Valley of Communication

Uncanny Valley graph (updated)

Uncanny Valley graph (updated) (Photo credit: Elif Ayiter/Alpha Auer/…./)

Here’s a fascinating question. How aware do you have to be that you’re being sold a bill of goods before you put up your defenses and refuse to buy it?

Who hasn’t been swayed—or at least tempted—by a cleverly-worded (or hip-looking) ad, choosing one product over another even while knowing they were probably about to pay a premium for something that wasn’t objectively any better than anything else? Or for something they didn’t really need at all?

Good old Shakespeare took this up (sort of) in one of his most famous sonnets, which has the fabulous opening lines:

When my love swears to me that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

As the sonnet goes on to explain, much more gracefully than I’m about to, the speaker is a bit long in years, but is flattered that his girlfriend assumes he’s young enough to believe her nonsense. She, in turn, is pleased that he believes her (even though, presumably, she knows he doesn’t, really).

It all leads up to the closing couplet, complete with Elizabethan sexual innuendo:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Altogether a stunning sonnet, but that’s not why I include it here. There’s a lesson, or at least a thought experiment, in this for us contemporary writers of somewhat (ok, a whole lot) less creative copy.

The sonnet popped into my head when I was pondering the question I began with. How is it that I can watch or read an ad or listen to a sales pitch, knowing full well the message has been artfully crafted to draw me in, and still find myself drawn in? How is it that I can sit in front of a schmaltzy movie, listen cynically to the swelling music, and still feel my eyes fill with tears?

And how, if at all, does this phenomenon relate to our work as internal communicators?

I spend a lot of time in this blog and elsewhere promoting my belief that when employee communications aren’t honest they lose all credibility. I moan about the misuse of words like “challenge” and “opportunity” to mean “problem” and “weakness.”

And yet, I also believe in the power of words to create actual concrete change in the world. After all, that’s the theory behind much of what’s often derisively called “political correctness.” Gender-neutral language, for example: as a woman who can remember a world in which “he” was still considered a universal designation for humans of either sex, I can attest firsthand to the power language can have to affect not only our feelings but our understanding and beliefs.

So it seems to me there is a line to watch for, especially when you’re conveying not-so-happy news: on one side is language that is aspirational—it paints the best possible picture of any given situation—and on the other side is, well, BS. There’s nothing wrong with trying to put your message in the best light, as long as you don’t step over that line.

People in the world of animation speak of the “uncanny valley.” The idea is that as animation has gotten more and more realistic-looking, it sometimes reaches a point where it falls off a cliff into creepy. The story goes that when the folks at Dreamworks first tested Shrek with a group of children, the kids were terrified. The animators had made the princess character so realistic that she looked almost human, but at the same time she was missing some essential element of humanness. The result was monstrous, in the eyes of these kids, and the animators had to backtrack, re-creating her character in a purposefully less realistic manner.

So, here is the challenge (yes, I’m using the word correctly) for internal communicators—really, for all communicators: get as close to the edge as you dare, but don’t fall into the uncanny valley of communication. In our case, it probably won’t actually scare your audience, but it will scare them away.

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Is Writing Dead?

Death

Photo credit: tanakawho

I was talking to someone recently about some possibilities for presentation topics at a conference. She’d suggested a few options relating to work-life communications or social media. I said, “What I’d really love to do is a writing workshop.”

“Writing?” she asked. “Who writes anymore?”

I sort of understood what she meant. When we talk about communications, about media—social and otherwise—we’re all encouraged to think in grand terms: video, tweets, Powerpoint, info-graphics, podcasts, etc. And it’s true that any twenty-first century communications plan does have to include at least some of these media. But I still get most of my information from the written word—don’t you?

I’m starting to get the hang of Twitter, but mostly because I’ve discovered what a good source it can be of links to articles elsewhere. If I need to research a topic, or am seeking some “how-to” information, I start with Google, just like everyone else. I don’t reach for a book or head to the library. But nearly every Google search leads to written web content, a PDF, or a book.

I know we all have different favorite ways of getting our information, but I’ll bet there are plenty of others like me who, when finding that a search result links to a video, click away and move on to another link that will give me the information in writing. If I want to know how to do something, or learn more about a topic, I don’t have the patience to watch a video. A video organizes the information for me, in a way I may not want it organized, forcing me to wade through a lot of stuff I’m not interested in without being sure I’ll find the information I do want. I want a piece of text that I can search, skim, or read end to end, as I please. I want to control the pace, not have someone else’s idea of pacing fed to me in video form.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, even if you are taking in your information (or putting it out) in the form of a video, podcast, or PSA, someone still has to write it first.

It’s the new year, progress marches ever forward (I suppose) but words remain timeless. Don’t be deluded by technology—whether your audience is going to find you by linking from a Tweet or from Facebook, read you on an iPhone or a Nook, or listen to you through iTunes, in the end, you generally have only words to get your point across. Remember that at one time a printed book was a technical innovation. But it still made use of the same communication building blocks used by the ancient oral poets and the monastic scribes that came before: words.

No matter how you cut it, you need words to communicate, and to communicate effectively you have to know how to use those words effectively.

Writing lives!

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