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Structural Solutions: We’re All Busy….

Douglas Fitzpatrick on October 12, 2016 - in Column

As a business owner, you have to deal with a lot of things. Some are simple: Where to order copier paper? Where should we have the Christmas party this year? Others are not so simple: Is it time to consider moving the office to the cloud? How can we grow our company or expand our offerings? Some are downright difficult: (usually involving people). And some issues are totally out of our control: the economy.

Humble Pie

From 2009 to mid-2014, the economy reminded us what it feels like to not be busy. There was plenty of stress to go around, wondering if you might be included in the next wave of layoffs. Many design colleagues, some we had worked with for years, were let go. Some moved on to other professions, and some managed to hang in there and have since resurfaced at other firms.

Many firms had to take a hard look at internal operations and make tough decisions. Letting people go never is easy, particularly when some of the reasons were due to gluttonous excesses from the boom times of the early 2000s. For some companies, perhaps, it was a good thing to clean house, but it never feels good or right when it comes at the expense of employees’ personal lives.

Swinging Pendulum

As we entered 2015, A/E firms started getting busy again, much like everyone else. However, there was a distinct time during summer 2015 when I wondered if we were “really busy,” or if we simply had forgotten what it was like to be “busy.” We had been working at half speed long enough that it started to feel normal.

But as the calendar rolled over into 2016, it was obvious we hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be busy; we were just flat-out busy. The tail end of 2015 and early 2016 brought a fresh wave of RFPs, and we were successful on enough of them to give us a reasonably healthy backlog. Not only that, these projects are actually moving forward.

In the course of only a year or so, we were faced with the opposite challenge: too much work. The pendulum swung from working at half speed to hyper speed. As a business owner, managing this new workload demand is a bit more difficult than it typically would be. Do I need to hire people to do this work? Or is this a head fake, and we won’t see another RFP for months? After suffering for six years with a laboring economy, it gives one pause.

What to Do?

I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that management isn’t sure how long this business cycle will last. Rather than hire a wave of folks to do the work now, then wrestle with the business implications of letting folks go when the economy sags later, many firms may be asking current staff to work longer hours. Do more with less, at least for a little while, until they can see how this current economy plays out or shows more signs of longevity. With some careful planning, there would be some profits to share at year end to “settle up” for the extra hours needed to get through this.

Another solution is to selectively turn down work. Given the uncertainty of the last six years and the not-so-clear picture of where we’re going, that’s a tough call. As a small business, many of those “small” projects are exactly what got us through the tough times. Without many of those projects, we would have had to let people go. It doesn’t seem fair or right to turn our back on some of those clients who helped us through the bad times just because times are good. So we ask our folks to do more.

But we need to be careful. That can be a slippery slope, as this is still a risky profession. Our No. 1 charge is to protect the life and safety of the public. So as management asks us to work a little more, we must remain vigilant in our attention to detail. We still have to look at everything and “sweat the details.”

If your office has checklists in place and procedures to follow to “dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” make sure you follow them just as religiously now as before. Do not cut corners just to get work done. We have to stay focused on the end game: making sure our buildings are safe for the public.

Douglas Fitzpatrick

About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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