Knowledge & Insights

Interview Series: Conversations with VOOU + Kat Anderson

Visions of Renewal with Kat Anderson, HR & Operations Manager of GLHN Architects & Engineers, AZ (U.S.)

In this collection of conversations with business leaders, entrepreneurs, educators and creatives from around the globe you will hear from some of the best and brightest, and weird and wonderful sharing their thoughts, ideas and insights on industry trends and opportunities as we journey through 2021 and beyond, and provide us with some short advice on how to lead, learn, and live and love.


Kat Anderson is the spirited and passionate HR & Operations Manager of GLHN Architects & Engineers, Inc. in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona (U.S.).

I met Kat back in November. She attended my webinar with Zweig Group on Empathy in Marketing & Client Relations - a talk I felt I completely messed up (notes missing, slides our of sequence - the joys of virtual, and my first webinar). Kat found me on LinkedIn and wrote me after letting me know how valuable she thought it was, and later, after I confessed my displeasure with how it went, she was kind enough to say that she appreciates the human moments in presentations. Smart girl! That's when I knew she'd be a great person to have a chat with :-)

During her conversation with Voou, she sheds some light on what trends and opportunities have arisen from the pandemic within her role and for her industry – the AEC industry (Architecture, Engineering and Construction), what good leadership looks like from her perspective, especially in times of crisis, and offers a bit of life advice as a professional struggling at times with the pressures of balancing the role of independent working parent and teacher’s aide, all in one place and usually at the same time.

So much of what Kat talked about stuck a chord with me, but this one really made me think:

“How often in history has there been an event that has connected every single human being on this planet? This is a single source of empathy that connects us all.”

Read on…

What has been the impact of Covid-19 and what has changed in your world as a result?

I think an easier question is what hasn't changed.

Within my company, we were well-positioned to quickly make the move to a 100% remote workforce, but an area we’ve really had to adjust and refocus our attention on was our culture.

Now that we’re a remote workforce connecting via screens the lack of organic opportunities for employees to engage with one another has left a void. At a time where so many people are feeling distant and isolated from not just their work but family, friends, and the world. Positive cultural communication within the workforce can be a driving force for human connection. Otherwise, we are all just people in our rooms, home offices, closets, or dining tables trying to get a job done in the midst of managing life and that’s no way to be. I imagine like most companies we have employees on every level of the comfort spectrum when it comes to various aspects of working in a remote environment. From turning cameras on in a Zoom or Teams call to deciding whether to send an email vs a chat and even those holding on to printed paper and physical filing systems.

This presented an opportunity to bridge the generational divide rather than widen it. One of the many silver linings that I hold on to during difficult times where there is so much negativity to distract and weigh us down.An opportunity to use the forced adaptation we are all experiencing as a driving force to truly work together and collaborate – people coming together with a new willingness to learn new technologies or listen to the wisdom of experience. Embracing discomfort through humility by asking for help – cross-generation/multi-generational learning. GLHN has a phrase that stems from being an employee-owned firm and growing through years of service to our clients. Our Success Comes from Helping Others Succeed. That starts inside our walls standing or virtual and I have seen our employees leveraging their strengths to share the wealth and help others transition and just as importantly I have seen them ask for help where they recognize they have a gap to fill. I think there's been an interesting collaborative twist to the whole pandemic.

Overall, the key has been communication. It has played such a large role. When we first started, I created an entire page on our intranet dedicated to COVID-19 Communication. With daily updates especially when we still had people ordering new equipment, testing out their wi-fi and making sure everything worked. The intranet was a vital source. It provided an opportunity for people to ask and get questions answered. Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, I wasn’t able to answer the only real question on everyone's mind – “How long is this going to last?” That was hard for a lot of us – a willingness to be comfortable with only being able to see a couple of weeks out. Think about the book, Who Moved My Cheese.

What business trends and opportunities do you believe COVID-19 has accelerated in your industry for 2021 and beyond?

This time also forced us to take a look internally how we do things and not just because we were working and operating in a new manner, but because of the economic uncertainty, the pandemic provided. As we first sat at tables 6 feet apart to discuss transitioning employees and the economic impact, much of the discussions called back to the last recession in 2009. So, we used that, we thought, “Ok, we’ve been here once before.” And then we asked ourselves, “What did we do right?” and “What did we do wrong?” because that's the closest thing people had to compare it to - it was the last time our work and stability was threatened.

As a result, we are looking at diversifying our portfolio - more federal, industrial, and commercial work, and we are making an effort to grow our Marketing and Business Development so that we can begin to flourish again.

One of the biggest things we saw as far as employee needs enhanced by Covid was training - to learn and hone various skills and enable a common language. For example, how to speak with project managers, and the language of a doer-seller? What does empathy really mean right now?

The reality is that the market is going to come back strong. Economists predict the construction sector booming by Q4. When it does, there will be a greater hiring demand, potentially a labour shortage and a competitive recruiting market for the AEC Industry.

We can either be using this time to get in shape and be ready or we can continue to panic and be complacent and therefore put our focus in the wrong areas.

Right now it’s really the small to medium-sized firms that are struggling. Therefore, I believe there will be a continuation of the mergers and acquisitions trend that we have seen in recent years. An uptick.

I think we will also see companies regearing to be leaner organizations. We have taken this time as an opportunity to look at how we work, with a goal to work even leaner – meaning that architecture, mechanical electrical and civil engineering departments are operating as a unified team of well trained and highly creative professionals – each employee, department, and teammate is a vital gear working together in the right way – a sort of a beautiful living machine. And if not, then the machine is inefficient and has to work harder which takes more fuel. So now is the time to regear by unlearning, standardizing, training, and mapping. Analyse your processes and systems and listen to your people.

That’s the driving force behind evaluating our internal operations– looking at how we communicate internally, how systems integrate and systems align with our processes. We are looking at the technologies we utilize – CAD, BIM software and integrations, and uncovering opportunities for innovation. And within, looking at how we share knowledge more effectively – for example, job shadowing, cross-training, virtual courses, and using ‘train the trainer’ programs. We need more opportunity to have those casual learning conversations which can be like nuggets of wisdom.

The AEC industry tends to lag years behind other industries - slow to adopt new technology (3D modelling technology) and business practices. So, it’s kind of interesting what is happening now because we have had to speed up quite a bit to adapt to what is currently happening. I think you’ll be seeing more companies really pushing the boundaries of how we work as a company and a team. Maybe this will help transform how the industry works.

It was interesting - we had an internal conversation about business development, and someone asked – “Well, how do we get work?” and one of the comments was – “You have to know how to work a room.” Of course, the following question was, “How do you do that when there is no room?”

How we view the practice business development has changed (or should, or could, or will). How we communicate with clients, etc., especially when bolstering the doer-seller model requires training – a revolution of continuous learning.

There's a significant increase in manufacturing activity in the Phoenix area as well as a mass exodus of people from California coming into Arizona for various reasons – the weather is great, and people are attracted to the cheaper real estate (though prices are rising as a result - Tucson rent rates are up 18% since COVID started.) As a result, residential construction has seen a fair amount of growth in the past year and is continuing to trend upward.

What’s interesting to think