Five Ways To Engage Virtually: #SHRM21 Annual Conference

The 2021 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition is a week away. **GASP** A WEEK! 
Let’s go back for just a moment to 2020.  There was so much anticipation and excitement around SHRM20 in San Diego – which started during #SHRM19 in Las Vegas. 

And then…. COVID-19. 

​The world as we knew it completely turned upside down and inside out. The world of work was changed in an instant – forever. Leaders and HR professionals were trying to figure it out on the fly. None of us have ever seen anything like this before. Some companies were models to follow in their response to the pandemic. Some companies woefully failed in the way they treated their people. (I had a friend who was furloughed and subsequently laid off via an email after 20 years with the same company. Y'all, this is an example of what not to do!) Conferences were cancelled and/or postponed, including SHRM20.  **sad face**
SHRM21 was originally to be held in June 2021 in Chicago. Sadly, this too was postponed. *sad face*
Now, here we are, just a week away from SHRM21 in Las Vegas. The conference is offered both in-person and virtually. You can attend all. You can attend for a day. There are so many options! *happy face*
By the way, there is still time to register for whatever works best for you and your schedule. Check out the SHRM21 Annual Conference and Expo website for a list of speakers, concurrent sessions, pre-conference sessions, and networking events.  Use the discount code: SHRM21_ INFLUENCER to receive $150 off registration and a free SHRM21 + Life is Good co-branded t-shirt.
I will be attending the full conference virtually. This was an incredibly difficult decision for me to make considering I’m an extreme extrovert and mingling in person is my jam. I’ve never attended a conference of this magnitude virtually. Additionally, I was invited to participate as an official #SHRM21 Influencer (previously the SHRM Bloggers).  (I invite you to meet and connect with this year’s team: Now More Than Ever – Introducing Your SHRM21 Influencers. Follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter, or wherever you mingle on social media, and buckle up for all of the amazing content they’ll be pushing out! Follow the hashtags: #SHRM21 #SHRM21Influencer #SHRMNMTE to make sure you don't miss out on any info!)
I started to think about how I can make the most out of this experience. How would I engage with speakers and their content during general sessions and concurrent sessions? How would I meet new people virtually? How would I keep my energy up in a virtual environment without succumbing to all of the possible distractions?
In order to prep, I want to share a few action items that can help you make the most of your virtual conference experience - before, during, and after.  Here's a countdown of 5 ways you can prepare for a great virtual conference, share your takeaways with your team at work, make amazing life-long friendships, and continue to build that momentum long after the conference is over.

5. Prepare Your Session Schedule

The SHRM21 Annual Conference and Expo website is a great place to peruse speakers, pre-conference offerings, networking events, and all general/concurrent sessions. Click on “Program” at the top, and select “Full Schedule.”  This takes you to a page where you can scroll through the entire conference from beginning to end. You can also search by keyword, the type of pass (Virtual or In Person), by day, by event type, by learning track, and by competency. If you’re new to this, it can be quite overwhelming, so take it in bite sizes. Consider your own career track and professional development. What are some gaps and areas of opportunity that could help advance your career? If your company is paying for your attendance, think about the most critical needs of your company and what sessions you could attend to help support those needs.  
The conference spans four days. There is a LOT of learning that takes place. Don’t feel like you have to attend intense learning sessions all the time. (I did that one year. I was exhausted! That’s a lot to take in!) Mix it up a bit!
On each session description, you’ll see a little calendar icon next to the event time. Click on the calendar icon and add the session to your calendar. 

Here are a few recommendations:

4. Prepare your space

Create your “conference space” in a way that makes you want to be there.  Considering lighting (natural vs artificial, light tone, brightness), potential distractions (kids, pets, significant others, coworkers), audio/video options, and furniture. 
With technology, there are ways you can simulate an in-person experience.  Connect audio to a soundbar or external speakers so you can crank up the volume! (I’m all about the surround sound soundbar. We’ve had many a Taylor Swift concert in our living room!)  Consider the size of your monitor – the bigger the better.  Are you able to mirror your screen on a smart TV or large monitor so you’re not struggling to see a small laptop (or phone, eek!)?

Set up your furniture in a way that you’re comfortable – but not TOO comfortable. (Don’t lounge on the sofa, risking a mid-session snooze.)

How do you take notes – paper notebook, tablet,. or other devices? Have everything ready – paper, pens, charging cords.

​Limit possible distractions by placing your phone on silent, closing a door, placing a sign on your door stating that you’re unavailable until X time, and keeping your work apps CLOSED. (Don’t even consider opening work email until break times and/or scheduled office hours. That’s a sure-fire way to get sucked into work unintentionally.)

3. Schedule Self-Care

Self-care is as important during a virtual conference as it is during an in-person conference. Make sure you’re scheduling breaks. Get up and stretch. Grab a snack. Eat healthy meals to keep your body and mind ready for all of the information you’ll need to process. Drink plenty of water.  If you’re a coffee/tea drinker, have your favorite ready to go.
Also, vary your position during the day – sitting/standing. During your break times, go for a short walk. Do some mindfulness. Keep your morning/evening exercise routine.  

2. Protect Your Calendar

It’s understandable that even during an in-person conference you may be called away to attend to an urgent work matter. It’s even more likely during a virtual conference. This can be quite stressful in both scenarios. To the extent possible, prepare your team and your leaders for your absence.  Let them know ahead of time that you are going to be unavailable during certain times. If you want to get really fancy, schedule office hours for when you can be available.
Avoid looking at your cell phone, responding to emails and text messages during sessions. You think you can multitask but you can’t. You will miss out on great nuggets of information and insight if you’re trying to do two things at once. 
Protect your time.  Protect those sessions that you feel are crucial to your professional (and/or personal) growth. Model this behavior for your team and your leaders – it gives them permission to do the same. This alone can have profound impacts on work culture. 
Calendar creep has long been an issue. Prioritize this time so that you can continue to have a positive impact. It’s good for you. It’s good for your company. Go all in.

1. Invest In Your Professional Network

 I cannot stress this enough. Invest in your community. Before. During, After.
If you’re on LinkedIn and/or Twitter, follow the hashtags: #SHRM21 #SHRMNMTE #SHRM21Influencer. Engage with the author by responding and sharing. Consider attending the virtual networking events, as well! There are some entertainment/game options, as well as idea-swap options with others in similar industries.
Be intentional. Be curious about others. You never know what insights you’ll gain from others’ experiences and wisdom, or what friendship can develop from a common interest. Remember, you are in HR. HR is about (wait for it…) PEOPLE. (I know… shocking.) Take the time to meet your colleagues and learn from one another. I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: One of the most powerful tools in your HR toolbox is your network.  Networking isn’t about exchanging business cards. It’s about intentionally building relationships for the purpose of giving – not getting.
Make it a personal challenge to connect meaningfully with at least one person whom you do not know each day you attend.  Schedule a virtual coffee break or happy hour. (I invite you to connect with me! I would LOVE to meet up for coffee/cocktails!) Keep those connections going after the conference. 
Do not underestimate the power of human connection. 
The SHRM Annual Conference and Expo is an opportunity to grow your community, challenge your assumptions, stretch your mindset, and take purposeful steps towards a more meaningful career. The workplace has changed dramatically in a short period of time. There is no “going back to the way it was.” (And why would we want to?) Now more than ever, our organizations need us (HR) to lead, model, provide sound counsel, and walk alongside the C-suite to help guide the business. Our profession is on the brink of something wonderful. We are poised to be the business leaders we have wanted to be for decades.  Take the bull by the horns and embrace the challenge!
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