What to Do When There's Not Much to Do

Call it a slowdown or call it an incipient recession, many of us are experiencing the effects of an economic downturn. Those whose livelihoods are tied to land development and home construction are especially feeling the pain. When will it turn around? Here in Colorado, we are hopeful that spring of '08 will bring us a moderate recovery, while '09 will bring us back to some sense of normalcy. While certainly not immune to the housing crunch, our particular market never really experienced the rapid growth that the other hot markets, like Phoenix or the coastal areas, had seen.

As I write this, the fed has dropped the interest rate 1.25 points in the last few weeks. Home buyers are starting to react; our realtors are reporting increased traffic. Whether this translates into increased sales is yet to be seen. But as spring approaches, the snow slows down, the thermometer climbs (and interest rates decline), and we are keeping our fingers crossed.

Our belief that the future of our market space, that is land development and residential construction, will improve in the near future is not just wishful thinking. Here's what a recent study by Harvard's Center for Housing Studies said: "Over the longer term, household growth is expected to accelerate from about 12.6 million over the past ten years to 14.6 million over the next ten. When combined with projected income gains and a rising tide of wealth, strengthening demand should lift housing production and investment to new highs."

Survival Mode

Aside from crossing your fingers, there are things you and your company can do to weather the storm. While it's true that the economy is beyond our control, many of us are taking steps to ensure the survival of our respective organizations. I don't deign to understand every company's individual situation, but I can offer some ideas.

Reduction in Labor:

This is one of the most painful of all survival tactics that businesses are forced to use to keep their boat afloat. I've been a survivor of multiple layoffs and on the receiving end once. The former wasn't fun and the latter was traumatic. In the old days the management techniques were simple:

  1. Identify rank and file employees with the largest wages and let them go, or
  2. Last hired, first fired, or
  3. 10 percent cut across the board at department managers' discretion.

Some alternatives to force reduction, where financially possible, include:

  1. Across the board wage- or work-week reductions to maintain employment levels.
  2. Trading time off for wages; temporary furloughs as an example.
  3. Part-time employment where feasible for some employees.
  4. Early retirement.
  5. Any combination of the above.

When reductions are unavoidable, many companies are thinking along lines of performance-based criteria. Those team members who are high achievers are given more consideration to continued employment.

Strategic Thinking

As mentioned earlier, I have survived numerous layoffs and learned an important lesson in the process. After one such layoff, my manager had a meeting with me to discuss why I wasn't included in the workforce reduction. At the time I was a copywriter/public relations specialist/publications coordinator in a small marketing department for a medium- sized manufacturer. My "title" was a clue: Management had decided that they needed generalists who could perform multiple functions as opposed to narrowly focused, single-role specialists. There is a lesson here, both organizationally and individually.

As a company, are you adaptable to meet all the needs of your market? If not, what could you do to offer a wider range of land surveying services?

Are your employees cross-trained? Can your field staff perform drafting or office functions in a pinch? And vice versa? The pinch being, of course, workforce reductions or the inevitability of employees who leave for greener pastures in trying times.

Process Management:

As part of the above efforts, you may consider embarking on a company-wide process management program. This column introduced the concept in the July 2007 issue of this magazine: "Process Management— The Path to Profitability." While that two-part series included an overview of a high-end software package to assist companies in this endeavor, the steps detailed in those articles do not require specialized software and the attendant outlay of scare funds. Indeed, a slowdown is an ideal time to plan for the future. Many of us put off vital strategic planning due to the crush of business. Why not take the opportunity and make the best use of the extra time?

Tactical and Practical

In addition to high-level strategic endeavors like process management, there are a host of activities that can make the best use of downtime and improve your company's functions as well.

Data Management:

Do you have a comprehensive data management program, including routine backups, in place? If not, this is an opportune time to organize the lifeblood of any survey shop: your data.

Office Organization:

Don't stop at organizing and protecting your CAD files and data points. Your office files, including accounting data, work files, and customer data need to be organized and protected.

Equipment And Software Training:

Chances are that your field crews could make the best use of their spare time to keep up to snuff on your high-end GPS and other survey equipment. That goes for your drafters and all that complicated CAD software. Taking the time to learn the ins and outs of your equipment and software can pay off in enhanced productivity when business picks up.

Marketing:

What is your company doing to market itself? Do you have a website? Getting a presence on the web has never been easier or cheaper. Nowadays it's the first place your customers look.

Documentation Overhaul:

Your documents, including survey drawings and other associated documents, reflect the professionalism of your organization. Are they up to snuff? Look at the title blocks on your drawings: are they up to date with all the correct contact information? Do they have a short marketing position stating your company's focus?

A Penny Saved: Ways to Economize at Your Shop

Fuel:

As the cost of gasoline continues upward, it behooves land surveyors to take steps to economize on fuel. Obvious steps include scheduling survey jobs on a geographic basis to make the best use of your time and fuel. Also, try to contain the lead-foot drivers on your staff and re-examine the need for unnecessary idling, which is a known fuel waster. Mind you I did say "unnecessary" idling: Idling to charge equipment batteries is of course another matter.

Office Supplies:

The market for office supplies has become quite competitive. In our area, a major retailer, Staples, has entered the market. They have provided coupons to entice us to shop there and we oblige them. Look for deals on free shipping to your shop, which can save the trouble and expense of driving to their location. Most of these free shipping deals kick in at a certain buying level, say $50 or $100. Obviously they are trying to get you to boost your order to meet these levels. By taking some care in your shopping and "batching" your purchases, you should be able meet these thresholds without tacking on unneeded items. The same holds true for the "free gift" promotions. I've received some DVD players like this. You can save these up and give them away to your employees as a "small token of esteem." Don't forget to check for inkjet and plotter cartridge promotions: Staples is currently offering a $3 coupon for every cartridge you bring in.

If you find the need to buy a new laser printer, think about getting one with a duplexing option. It will save on paper in the long run.

Software And Hardware:

I really like Newegg.com for great deals on software and hardware. They often have great deals that include free shipping (unless you live in California, no tax either). Shipping, when it's not free, is reasonable and fast. Good customer service rounds the reasons why I use them almost exclusively. Both TigerDirect.com and Newegg.com just received good marks in a review of online vendors in a major consumer magazine (who doesn't like its name used). If you find a need for speed, PC-wise, use one of these vendors to add more RAM, a hard drive, or a video card. Extra RAM and a fast hard drive are especially low-cost ways to improve your PCs' performance.

Resources:

I'll give myself a shameless plug and note that articles on most all of the above topics can be found in the archive section of Professional Surveyor Magazine's website: http://www.profsurv.com/magazine/archives.aspx. Just plug "Salmon" (without the quote marks) into the author field of the "Individual Search Terms" section of the archive search page.

About the Author

  • Jeff Salmon, Editor
    Jeff Salmon, Editor
    Jeff Salmon is the new editor for Professional Surveyor Magazine. For nearly 15 years he has been involved with the geospatial and surveying industries. He has worked as an instrument operator, a manager for a surveying firm, a land-use project manager and end-user of land surveying services, and a writer and editor on geospatial subjects. He started in 2005 as the Business Angle columnist, then served as the web editor and then editor for our popular Pangaea newsletter, which he still produces.

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