10/27/2014 12:10 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

Top Ten Things I Learned at a Leading Work-Life Event

A couple weeks ago, Working Mother Media convened the 2014 Work-Life Congress in New York City. The annual conference celebrates organizations on the year's "100 Best Companies" list, bringing in representatives of those organizations plus numerous other players in the work-life world. I love going to events like these: if they are well-planned, featuring interesting topics and strong speakers to present them (as this one did, on the whole), I wind up meeting a lot of stimulating people and walk away buzzing with random bits of information, data and inspiration. So, since we're in the final days of National Work and Family Month, I thought I'd share a few odds and ends of what I picked up.

Herewith, my thoroughly unscientific compilation of the ten most fascinating facts, ideas and comments I heard at this year's Working Mother Work-Life Congress:

  • Dr. Tracey Wilen, a "thought leader" who moderated a panel on the future of work, provided an anthropological perspective on the role technology plays in shaping workplaces, commenting that: as an agricultural society we gathered around farms, as an industrial society we gathered around factories, as an informational society we gathered around offices and now, in the digital age, we gather around wi-fi spots and electrical outlets. ("How true is that!," I thought, as I dashed out to pick up my phone from the charging locker in the lobby.)
  • And from the same speaker, we got a fascinating look into the future of on-the-job training--here's the mind-blowing way some BMW technicians are apparently being assisted with auto repair.
  • From the folks at Working Mother Research Institute, we got confirmation of an intuitive truism: work-life programs are all the more effective when they are more widely accepted and used. According to research published by the institute at the launch of National Flex Day last year, women who are managed by someone who often or always works from home report feeling more supported at work and happier at home. And according to this year's study, which focused on men, men whose employers encourage flexibility are more satisfied over a wide range of variables--from the level of respect they get at work to their career prospects--than those who say their employer could encourage flexibility, but doesn't.
  • There's a stereotype circulating out there that millennials are demanding and self-involved. Rob Keeling, VP of Human Resources for Capital One, begs to differ. He has been struck by the commitment of today's young people to community service. And in talking with some of them, he's confirmed they're not just doing it for their resumes. "My generation was raised to give back," one teen told him. Think about it, Keeling adds--this is the generation that grew gardens in kindergarten in order to donate food to a homeless shelter. From earliest childhood, many of them have been fed community service as a value. (I would love to see some actual research on how much community service has become part of school curricula. I know in comparing my own baby boomer education to that of my children, their schools are the hands-down winners when it comes to an emphasis on giving back.)
  • Stop looking at technology as all bad or all good, says Obed Louissaint, VP of People & Culture at IBM. Technology is like a knife: it can be a dangerous weapon or it can be an essential kitchen tool. It's all in how you wield it.
  • A comment from Carol Evans, President of Working Mother Media: "More women are sidetracked from their careers due to elder care than due to child care. And it frequently happens during their most productive, 'high-value' years."
  • Dr. L. Casey Chokewood, Director of the Office for Total Work Health at the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), gave an inspired speech on workplace wellness. As his title implies, he takes a "Total Rewards" approach to wellness--advocating applying it broadly across the workplace. For example? When employees requested free parking, he arranged to have a lot built for them--a full 15-minute walk from the office. (When I ran into him at a later event, he confided: "I'm thinking of slowing down the elevators next. Just enough to make it easier to take the stairs...")
  • Ted Childs, work-life/diversity guru and namesake of the "Ted Childs Life Work Excellence Award," sums up the business case for workplace wellness memorably, if a trifle morbidly: "If they're sick, they're not working. If they're dying, they're not buying."
  • A comment from the floor in a session on "Engaging Men in the Work Life Revolution": the president of the United States has been working flexibly for years! He works from Camp David, he works on the road, he works from vacation." (Ok, maybe we shouldn't be promoting the whole "works from vacation" angle, but I thought it was a point well taken.)
  • One hundred percent of companies on this year's "100 Best" list offer paid maternity leave (no surprise there: it's an eligibility requirement)--as opposed to 5 percent nationwide. 84% offer paid paternity leave, and 90% offer paid adoption leave--versus 12 percent for each nationwide. The number of women being promoted into senior management roles in these companies has slowly crept upward, but the increasing number of women in the most senior positions in corporate leadership is apparently due entirely to an increase in new women hires--the percentage of women being promoted into corporate leadership has held steady at about 31 percent. And many of us were gratified to hear that fully 31 percent of 100 Best companies offer nap rooms, as opposed to just 3 percent, nationwide.
Finally, here's one other thing I learned from my sojourn at the 2014 Work-Life Congress: Tossing your iPhone into a lightweight cloth bag and then holding that bag over your head in a rainstorm is not a smart thing to do.

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her and follow her blog at