My team’s management structure has been shaken up over the past couple of months. First, I received a promotion to the associate level. I’m now much more involved with setting fees for our work and responsible for keeping projects on budget. On top of the new role, one of my direct supervisors is transferring to another office. With no obvious replacements for his job, I expect to pick up some of the slack. This could be an opportunity or a workload that I’m unprepared for. At least, I should have the authority to implement some policies that improve office life, right?
I have not been shy about sharing my ideas for improving management. Thankfully, my managers politely listened to my thoughts even if they weren’t implemented. I figured I’d have my chance to change business one day. Faced with this opportunity, I now realize how difficult it is to implement idealistic changes to office procedure. Based on my admittedly limited experience here are some hindrances to running the office of your dreams.
1) Managers don’t know what they’re doing. Until stepping into this new role, I had foolishly been one to consider experience overrated. When it comes to negotiating fees with clients or dealing with ‘out of left field’ questions from the project team, there is no substitute for experience. A new hire on my team recently expressed that he couldn’t wait until he had my level of experience, when he wouldn’t be doing calculations for the first time. I laughed and said I longed for the time when I knew what the problem was and that it had a correct solution. He can expect more last minute calculation and drawing revisions as we struggle to keep the client happy.
2) Fees are too low. I write two to four fee proposals each week. It’s rare for my principal to agree with my estimates, which are based on the effort required to complete the project. Getting the job means guessing what fee the client will accept. In one recent example, the client requested a 40% reduction from our initial proposal. We would have taken the hit to keep the client if they hadn’t also refused to pay any amount of retainer. Had we won the job, you can bet that I would have been pressing my staff to work the job in part with unpaid overtime.
3) Everything takes time. I assume that most consulting engineering companies, like mine, expect their engineering staff to remain 100% billable. All those time codes that you’re required to use actually mean something. Overhead time is carefully tracked. Managers are sometimes chastised when their staff fails to meet the target billable utilization. All those wonderful side projects, like developing standard spreadsheets or writing procedural manuals, detract from billable time. That’s why you’re encouraged to take on such tasks on your own time.
4) The multiplier is all-important. A corollary to item three, the project budget is even more closely monitored. The project multiplier is computed by dividing current billings by the total labor cost to date. A high multiplier means a more profitable project. A certain number is required just to break even, depending on your company’s overhead costs (including employee benefits, property rent, marketing, etc). This metric is an objective measure of the manager’s performance, fairly or not. Even with deadlines looming, I have declined to add staff to my projects in order to control labor costs. I also try to staff the most efficient engineers on my projects.
5) It’s the business culture. Firms all have their own corporate culture. Whether they’re large or small, employee owned or publicly traded, downtown or in the suburbs all have effect. Some policies just won’t work at your company. A colleague recently explained his experience working temporarily out of another company’s office (it was not an engineering firm). They regularly had cocktails at lunch, beer in the refrigerator, and Friday afternoons off for golfing. Sound too good to be true? See points one through four for the economic impact. I know we couldn’t implement any of these ideas, if just because of the corporate culture. Even allowing alcohol consumption during the work day would be off-putting to a number of our staff members with a sense of sober responsibility to their work or who for other reasons choose not to imbibe. After hour events are totally fine though. I never would have thought that I’d be the buzz-kill on such ideas.
I’m learning that some things are the way they are for good reason. It’s not total coincidence that business operate the way they do and that while personnel will change, management seems to remain the same. There are a number of factors that place stress on managers and lead them to use staff in the way they do. I have a lot to learn about my new position. In time, hopefully I’ll be able to navigate this strange new world and become more effective and accommodating for my staff.