Here's what you should consider if you need to make some sort of cuts to your business this year. Photo via Getty Images

Preparing for a potential economic downturn can be unsettling for employers and employees. As payroll is typically one of the largest expenditures for a business, no matter its size, layoffs seem like the quickest fix. While this may offer short-term relief, they can severely impact operations and workplace culture.

When staff is reduced, culture can suffer. Employee morale can decrease and distrust may build, especially if layoffs are not communicated properly. This can lead to the remaining employees feeling anxious about their own future with the organization and spur them to look for employment elsewhere, which can affect an organization’s overall productivity and day-to-day operations.

Business owners should get creative and consider the impact and the many alternatives before resorting to workforce reductions.

Analyze salaries

If the organization’s downturn is short-term, senior leadership and upper management could accept temporary salary reductions until business improves. However, if the situation is more dire, leaders might consider an option such as cutting overhead with job sharing. Employee numbers then remain the same, but two positions become one and it is filled by two part-time employees to support a function or role. Furloughs for non-essential employees give employers time to consider if permanent layoffs are necessary. Of course, this requires an understanding of each performers contribution within the organization to determine overall impact and level of “necessity.”

Look at schedules

Permanent remote work could save on operating costs, such as leases and travel expenses, which gives more budgetary leeway to avoid layoffs. Another approach is implementing a four-day workweek to reduce hours and salaries by 20 percent. The added benefit to a shortened workweek is better employee work-life balance.

Scale Back Benefits

When finances are in a critical state, and leadership is looking to avoid layoffs, employers can scale benefits and perks for all employees. Temporarily pausing the 401(k) match, relying more on virtual business meetings instead of incurring travel expenses, and cutting employee bonuses can help ease the economic burden without letting people go. As with salary reductions, scaling back on benefits should begin with leadership before expanding to others.

Streamline Systems

When auditing the company, employers should also evaluate company processes and workflows for efficiency. It’s possible an employee could be more productive in a different role or a process may be found to be more laborious than necessary. Digital software is another alternative to help streamline systems. Employee feedback is another great resource to help identify gaps and streamline processes. A good practice is to have performers look for ways to make tasks within their role more efficient and productive.

Every decision has its costs. The most important thing employers can do is to be open and honest with employees, including transparency about the state of business. This communication style can increase employee buy-in during economic uncertainty and encourage employees to rally and be part of the resiliency of the organization.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Samantha Lewis of Mercury, Lydia Davies of Teamates, and Karen Leal of Insperity. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sportstech to venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

It's not an easy time to be a startup founder, and Samantha Lewis, principal at Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, knows that best. She joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what she's observed from the market — and how to navigate these uncertain times.

“We all know it’s turbulent market times. We’re unsure where the market is going, and when there’s uncertainty in the public markets, that puts uncertainty in the private markets,” Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. “What I’ve been spending the past two quarters doing is working with our portfolio companies to just make sure our balance sheets are bulked up for what’s to come in 2023.” Read more.

Karen Leal, performance specialist at Insperity

Time to think ahead, business owners. Here's what this expert thinks you need to prioritize. Photo courtesy

It's that time of year — the time to plan ahead for the next calendar year. Karen Leal, an expert at HR solutions company Insperity, wrote in a guest column her tips for small businesses and startups navigating the current market and planning ahead.

"While it is uncertain what lies ahead for businesses in 2023, leaders can prepare to face staffing challenges by choosing the best talent and creating a culture that shows employees that they are valued," she writes. Read more.

Lydia Davies, founder of TeeMates Golf and Teamates

Calling all sports fans. Image via LinkedIn

Lydia Davies, who launched TeeMates Golf last year, is back with another way for the athletically inclined to find likeminded individuals. Teamates, a new, Houston-based, multi-sport meetup app, connects like-minded sporty types who want to connect and run, hike, surf, or play golf, pickleball, and more.

“I have noticed more and more over the years that it is hard for adults to find friends, especially to find friends to play sports with,” said Davies in a press release. “Why not get active and use it as an icebreaker? Let us come out of the last few years healthier and happier by linking together to get outside and get active. Teamates makes it so easy to join a meetup with just one click.” Read more.

Time to think ahead, business owners. Here's what this expert thinks you need to prioritize. Photo via Getty Images

How Houston startups and small businesses can effectively plan for 2023

guest columns

Overcoming unforeseen challenges is often enjoyable for successful entrepreneurs. Recently, though, “unprecedented” obstacles seem to lurk after every turn. Some of the most pressing problems are a possible recession coupled with the tight labor market.

Small businesses can take action to protect themselves from these obstacles in 2023. To keep their businesses strong, leaders should strategize on preserving a positive culture, finding the right talent to innovate and holding onto existing workers.

Invest in culture

During the early stages of growing a business, culture can feel easy to overlook. However, culture is critical to growth and to curating a solid team of leaders and employees. As entrepreneurs try to scale the business model and grow profitability, leaders might feel tempted to encourage employees to work long hours with the mindset that culture can be corrected later. In fact, transforming a culture of toxicity is far more difficult than creating a positive culture from the beginning.

A positive culture is increasingly important to workers. In the 2022 Global Talent Trends Report from LinkedIn, 63 percent of job seekers said work-life balance was a top priority in selecting another role and 40 percent reported colleagues and culture were a top priority. Over half of employees named professional development opportunities as a top area for employers to invest in culture. Other top areas that were valued included flexible work support, mental health and wellness, training for managers to lead hybrid or remote teams and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Though budgets should include room for some level of spending on culture in 2023, effective HR departments do not need a hefty budget to cultivate a strong culture. Bigger companies may have more funds, but startups and small businesses can offer a more intimate environment. Unlike CEOs of major corporations, leaders of smaller teams also have the luxury of a close-up view of culture every day.

Small businesses’ culture also benefits from the ability to know every or at least most employees individually. At vast companies that neglect to engage with workers one on one, employees may grow cynical of pricey bonding activities and company values. Likewise, upward movement at huge corporations can be slower while smaller, nimble teams can recognize talent and promote quickly. Not every small business can offer subsidized tuition or training program benefits, so employees should be encouraged to take advantage of opportunities for promotion, learning and growth on the job. Hands-on learning with demonstrable results can speed up career development more than many certificate programs.

Attract the right talent

After the “Great Resignation” of 2020, employers are still struggling to recruit qualified candidates who feel less tied down to traditional jobs than in previous years. Many candidates leave their jobs without another position lined up in a reflection of these changing values. McKinsey discovered in March 2022 that 44 percent of workers who left their job without another lined up said they had little to no interest in accepting an offer for a “traditional job” in the next six months.

The Federal Reserve Bank has raised the interest rate several times this year in hopes of increasing the labor participation rate. Despite these efforts, the labor market is tight. Startups and entrepreneurial businesses should lean into their cutting-edge business models, openness to innovation and also emphasize unique benefits like work-from-anywhere or sabbaticals.

To win over the best candidates, businesses need experienced, knowledgeable and connected recruitment teams. Small businesses need to be realistic about the size of their HR team and consider bringing in outside help when necessary. Outsourcing recruitment to a recruiting agency or a professional employer organization (PEO), which can assist with more comprehensive solutions, is an option for not only understaffed HR departments but also ones that need extra support in this tight labor market. When deciding whether outside help is in the budget, be sure to account for the cost of an open position or length of time to hire in addition to all the other considerations associated with recruitment efforts.

Focus on employee retention

Worker retention also deserves consideration for 2023 planning. Culture influences workers to keep their jobs, but culture cannot make up for lack of competitive compensation. Startups may see high turnover in their first few years as the business defines itself and its culture. Should employees resign, exit interviews are a great opportunity for HR to hear a candid perspective on the employee experience. This feedback can prove invaluable for leaders when determining their retention strategy and areas of improvement.

Small businesses should also try to find room in the budget to stay competitive with compensation. Pew found in July 2022 that 60 percent of workers who left their job for a new role earned more afterward. Annual raises can help retain workers but may not be sufficient in themselves. Research fair market salary and try to bring compensation in line as much as possible. If a highly valued employee brings a higher offer to the table, evaluate the cost of matching the offer with the cost of a new hire. In many cases, raising that employee’s salary will save the company money overall, prevent a drop in productivity and preserve morale.

While it is uncertain what lies ahead for businesses in 2023, leaders can prepare to face staffing challenges by choosing the best talent and creating a culture that shows employees that they are valued.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

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Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sustainable fashion to tech manufacturing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Hannah Le, founder of RE.STATEMENT

Hannah Le founded RE.STATEMENT to provide a much-needed platform for sustainable fashion finds. Photo courtesy of RE.STATEMENT

It's tough out there for a sustainable fashion designer with upcycled statement pieces on the market. First of all, there historically hasn't been a platform for designers or shoppers either, as Hannah Le explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le says. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

RE.STATEMENT won one of the city of Houston's startup competition, Liftoff Houston's categories last year. Le shares what's next for the early-stage company on the show. Read more and listen to the episode.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

MacroFab has secured fresh investment to the tune of $42 million. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

MacroFab, a Houston-based electronics manufacturing platform, has announced $42 million in new growth capital. The company was founded by Misha Govshteyn and Chris Church, who built a platform that manage electronics manufacturing and enables real-time supply chain and inventory data. The platform can help customers go from prototype to high-scale production with its network of more than 100 factories across the continent.

“Electronics manufacturing is moving toward resilience and flexibility to reduce supply chain disruptions,” says Govshteyn, MacroFab’s CEO, in a news release. “We are in the earliest stages of repositioning the supply chain to be more localized and focused on what matters to customers most — the ability to deliver products on time, meet changing requirements, and achieve a more sustainable ecological footprint. MacroFab is fundamental to building this new operating model.”

The company has seen significant growth amid the evolution of global supply chain that's taken place over the past few years. According to the company, shipments were up 275 percent year-over-year. To keep up with growth, MacroFab doubled its workforce, per the release, and opened a new facility in Mexico. Read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains how to leverage communications at any stage your company is in. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Kelli Newman took actionable recommendations from investors, customers, advisers, and founders within Houston to compose a guest column with key observations and advice on leveraging communications.

"The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers," she writes. "Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice." Read more.

Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx