A Conversation with David Hughen, Founder and CEO, AustinWorkNet
To kick off our new series, our CEO Tom Dorsett sat down to Zoom with David Hughen, founder and CEO of AustinWorkNet. David provides a high-level perspective on the broader HR landscape in the COVID era.
David Hughen is a successful entrepreneur who built his 25+ year career on helping organizations succeed by coaching their leaders and addressing their human resource needs. He is the founder and CEO of AustinWorkNet, which focuses on optimizing employee commitment, performance and productivity by aligning them to the organization’s strategic business goals. Before AustinWorkNet, David co-founded Austin HR, which was acquired by Asure Software. David is a thought leader and one of the originators behind the HR roundtable, which has been bringing together HR leaders spanning multiple industries (though, primarily represented by the tech industry) to drive discussions around emerging trends in managing modern work life for the past 20 years.
Tom: When the pandemic was just beginning, what was the experience for HR professionals?
David: In the beginning, it was very reactionary. Getting employees remote was the immediate need for many but the capacity to manage the sudden challenge varied significantly. Until recently, companies have been in a responsive mode trying to gauge their human capital, operational needs, and revised financial expectations. A lot of time and energy has been spent on evaluating short- and long-term projections. Companies had to make hard decisions about furloughing, reduced pay programs, or layoffs. It took its toll.
Tom: You mentioned until very recently companies were being reactive. What’s changed?
David: Companies are just beginning to raise their heads up to reconsider how to manage their business. It’s moved from reactive to proactive. They are looking to invest—where possible—in the things that are necessary to distinguish the company in the marketplace.
Tom: What is the new focus for companies coming out of the reactive phase?
David: Companies are shifting back to the things they do best: developing new business channels, creating a high-performance organization, and remaining committed to giving back to the community.
That last piece is especially important to Millennials and Zoomers just entering the work force. These folks want to attach themselves to companies that do social good. Companies that have in their DNA a cultural commitment to give back to the community are better able to differentiate themselves and attract great employees to create a high-performance organization.
Tom: When talking about creating a high-performance organization, how are HR professionals managing work life in light of the pandemic?
David: As some parts of the country are re-opening, most companies are taking it slow. HR leaders are trying to help employees deal with a variety of issues — from employees suffering from cabin fever, extroverts wanting to get back to a workplace, working parents without childcare who need to stay home, executives who want to see employees back on the worksite and many other situations. They are focused on designing return to work programs and are working with facility managers to create a safe return. At the same time, they are extending accommodations for work-from-home through the end of the year.
The general theme is to go slow until we have a better understanding of the health impacts. It’s still a live condition. No one wants to make the headline “we started up and then had two COVID cases leading to us shutting back down.”
An HR colleague shared that her company reopened too quickly. They were, in part, trying to accommodate the extroverts. But the required PPE and other safe workplace protocols made people feel weird. Others just didn’t feel safe.
Tom: There’s been a lot of conversation about the “new workplace”. What’s your long-term take on that?
David: It will look different for many companies moving forward. There will likely be a combination of both work-from-home and work-from-office. The office may shift into a “touch downing” location where less people have defined work spaces. There is a strong argument to having people on site because it allows for immediate access and interpersonal interactions that are so productive in a work environment. That said, there are many tools available now to recreate that interpersonal experience, i.e. Slack, IM’ing, among others.
The extent to which companies can create conditions where people are not hampered and may utilize tools that can be incorporated into the rhythm of work life will determine the change. Nine to five may be replaced with a variety of rhythms in the way employees engage with each other, set up meetings, hand off work, etc. Companies are trying to sort through it all.
Tom: You mentioned that companies had different capacities to react. What made the biggest difference?
David: Companies with employees that interface more with computers were able to pivot quickly and effectively. Tech company employees work online as a matter of normal business so remoting in for a meeting was easy. Life has not changed that much.
Manufacturing was less flexible because people must be onsite to physically make the product. Their challenge was updating procedures to keep employees safe inside the facility. Any company with aging IT or a workforce not used to interfacing online had a difficult transition. Really, every organization has their own story.
Tom: Have you heard any stories about HR leaders innovating during this trying time?
David: I’ve been inspired hearing the humane ways in which organizations are accommodating the situation. I’ve seen companies find great ways to keep people informed, communicating constantly. In an absence of information, people often assume the worst. HR leaders are innovating ways to keep staff connected by offering fun things like happy hours and games on Zoom and other platforms. A company’s culture is a precious commodity. The best leaders are finding ways to recreate the comradery and support of the office environment.