Huw Roberts, CEO Graphisoft: How to Lead During a Crisis

One year into his position as CEO, the pandemic struck. Here’s how he dealt with it.

What a great company Graphisoft is to work at is being told in the past tense. We visited Graphisoft headquarters in Budapest, the birthplace of BIM, between flare-ups of COVID-19 infections. The place was deserted.

Like a Greek guide reciting past glories through the ruins of the Acropolis, Graphisoft CEO Huw Roberts gave us a tour.

The pandemic did this, said Roberts. Hardly anyone physically works at the company HQ anymore. They have been sent home. A few have wandered back in. A small group in one room with the lights on was there to Roberts’ surprise.

We used to have rock concerts with big name stars over there, said Roberts, pointing to an island in the Danube. You could hear it everywhere, even inside the building. Our employees used to sit out on the patios and listen.

Steve Jobs, not Graphisoft founder Gábor Bojár, greets visitors at Graphisoft HQ in Budapest.

Steve Jobs, not Graphisoft founder Gábor Bojár, greets visitors at Graphisoft HQ in Budapest.

Roberts is modest in the way of Graphisoft—and perhaps of Hungary. Roberts gives credit to others for the company’s success. Apple gets credit for Graphisoft’s early adoption. In the 1980s, Graphisoft was the only CAD programming running on Apple hardware, and Apple used Graphisoft as proof that its hardware could handle serious software. However, Hungary was still behind the iron curtain then and Apple computers were available only on the black market. Instead of a statue of Graphisoft’s founder, Gábor Bojár, greeting us at Graphisoft’s entrance, there is a statue of Steve Jobs.

Huw Roberts, an architect by training, is perfectly suited to lead Graphisoft. But just one year into his tenure, the world changed with the pandemic.

“No one in the world knew what to do,” said Roberts. But he did. Roberts took deliberate and decisive steps to protect his employees and ensure that they had everything they needed to work from home—even beer (more on that later).

CEO Huw Roberts, like his employees, often works at home, but on the day of our visit, he  brought his laptop to the office.

CEO Huw Roberts, like his employees, often works at home, but on the day of our visit, he brought his laptop to the office.

Some employees need to be on premises more than others, he said. Developers need big screens, workstations—he notes that it’s hard to take all that equipment home.

Used to the lavish kitchens of tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, we noticed that Graphisoft has kept up. But it is after 5 p.m. and the company cafeteria is dark and locked up.
It is open during the day and provides meals, said Roberts.

“We have great coffee,” said Huw Roberts, Graphisoft CEO and barista, at the company HQ in Budapest.

“We have great coffee,” said Huw Roberts, Graphisoft CEO and barista, at the company HQ in Budapest.
Roberts knows enough Hungarian to get by, greeting employees, cheering with wine over dinner. Not learning more Hungarian doesn’t seem to bother him or the Hungarians. By all accounts, Hungarian is a most difficult language to learn.

What’s it like being the only American in a Hungarian company?

We have a great team in the US and I’ve brought a few more Americans in with me–we
can all learn Hungarian together! [smiling].

How has the crisis from COVID-19 changed how you lead a company?

A crisis of any kind forces you to get to the core issues. You have to focus on the real meanings and real values. What are you really trying to address or protect or defend against?

The approach we took at Graphisoft was first to protect the people for both the business and the livelihood of our people. Then we do our part to protect the society that we’re in. And when I say the people, I mean our employees, consultants and customers. How do we do that? We encouraged and set up safe practices. We let them work at home. We set up surface sanitation stations. That may sound mundane, but letting all your employees work at home changes your communication style. It changes meeting schedules, how you hold meetings, how you address people. It has its challenges. How do you keep a sense of community, camaraderie and teamwork when you have people sitting by themselves and looking at a screen? You have to allow that some of your people will be sitting at their kitchen table, may be in a small apartment or have three screaming kids and a dog barking in the same room. If you are asking them to program, to write code and do deep thinking. There’s a whole bunch more issues to consider if you want to take care of your people.

We want to support our employee’s mental health and emotional health. We can offer resources for that. We can have activities that bring people together during work hours that are not work related. That’s how we let everyone know we think of them as people, not just employees.

As employees, we got focused on their actual requirements. For example, a developer needs bandwidth and computing power. A salesperson needs connectivity and communication. It was a good exercise to refresh ourselves of the core needs of each employee so we could empower them.

We understand Graphisoft took extra care to make sure its employees could work well from home, including having an ample supply of beer. Can you tell us more?

That’s right. They could have bought beer. For some people, that might be what they need to get them through this crisis.

But the point was really that you could get what you needed. We let people take things home from the office. They could take their computers, company furniture like their office chair, their motorized standing desks—whatever. Some people wanted to take plants home. I get that. I like plants. That was fine.

We recognize that different people have different situations. One person may want to buy a desk, a special mouse pad, whatever they felt they needed to be productive—but also, what would be good for their concentration and mental health. For one person, it might be a music player that drowns [out] the dog’s barking. For another, it might be a beer because the dog never shuts up and it’s louder than the music player.

We didn’t want to have them fill out a form for everything, so we just gave them all €600 [about $677] to spend as they liked, no questions asked.

We also bought them all a work-at-home kit, including a webcam for Team meetings, wireless keyboards and mice. We sent employees little gifts like company hoodies, chocolates, teas … comfort stuff. That was our way of saying, “Look, we’re all in a hard time together, management knows it and is behind you.” I think that’s helped to keep us together.

Do you see a future with hybrid workspaces [home/office] and hot desks?

Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. All we know is it’s not going to be the same as it used to be. We believe there will be a hybrid mode. People are not going to work from home all the time and they’re not going to work in the office all the time. But how to accommodate that? Some think you should have the same space you had in the office, but you just won’t use it all the time. Others are saying we’ll switch to hot desks or adopt a different configuration or downsize their real estate needs. Others are saying we can downsize the space for desks, but we need to upsize other spaces. People come to the office now for large team meetings or an activity. So maybe we don’t need as many desks, but we need bigger conference rooms or assembly rooms. Same footage just used differently. Whatever the solution, office space will have to be reconfigured.

Office buildings will not go away as a result of empty offices?

I expect buildings and space to be used for different purpose. We’ve seen rural shopping malls turn into distribution centers, retail shopping centers being used as Amazon warehouses and distribution centers.

If I was a real estate property owner, I would really be worried.

There will be reconfigurations and relocations and there may be empty office buildings downtown. But the same companies
may be building other facilities outside of downtowns in the countryside.

How did you help customers adjust to the pandemic?

Our software is geared to support distributed teams. Our BIMcloud and our teamwork software have helped people work together when they’re not in the same place. But not every architect uses those applications. Here was a typical situation. We have a firm with 8 to 10 architects sitting in an office one day and the next day, they all have to work from home. They were all working on the same project and the client isn’t changing their deadline. They’ll probably be fined for being late.

We asked, how can we help? What could we do to help teams work together? We made our teamwork applications free so they could keep working together even if they found themselves working from their own homes. We had customers already using BIMcloud who could now use it at home and on weekends on their laptops. They use their laptops and all can look at the same project. For those that didn’t have BIMcloud, they could now have it. They don’t have to buy it. They don’t have to set it up. It’s SaaS [software as a service]. You just log in and go. That really helped our customers. We got responses like “Thank you for doing this, you saved my company” or “You saved a project.”

At some point, BIMcloud will turn back into a commercial product, and then if they still need it, they can subscribe to it.