Government Support and What Employers Can Do

Robert Peake , 25 March 2020

As we face a crisis of unknown proportions, Rob Peake, Principal of Management for Design, outlines what is needed from the Federal Government, and what architectural practices can do to weather the storm.

What should the Federal Government do?

We are facing an economic crisis created by unprecedented and unforeseen circumstances. This requires unprecedented action by government. We need to do much more than just expect businesses and workers to “get on with it” and suffer the consequences. The tangible support and messaging from the Federal Government and health authorities is inadequate. It is not helping, and is certainly not reassuring architects, engineers and designers!

The current Federal Government support for business is also totally inadequate – particularly for small and medium-sized businesses. Far too little has been done to assist or reassure business, and government is moving far too slowly! For example, the suggested delay in the payment of tax is a token offer, as is a suggestion of the bringing forward of capital expenditure tax concessions. 

The following is immediately required, as a minimum:

  • An income guarantee for all workers (and casual employees) that have ‘lost’ their jobs for the period of the slowdown/shutdown (to the minimum value of 80% of ‘lost income’). This should apply for the full length of the shutdown, whether that be for two weeks, two months or six months. Employees should not be ‘forced’ to use their leave entitlements.
  • All small and medium-sized businesses to be reimbursed for ‘lost income’ during the shutdown to the minimum value of 80% of income.
  • Any additional expenditure as a result of business circumstances created by the enforced shutdown and slowdown needs to be reimbursed or credited against future tax obligations – in particular, technology costs.
  • The government needs to prioritise small and medium-sized business, not big business such as the airlines and the banks. Small and medium-sized businesses rely on regular month-to-month cashflow. This is critical.

The loss of confidence and the impact on the financial markets is immense. The costs associated with any intervention will need to be recovered through increased borrowing, increased taxes (or dropping the proposed personal tax cuts) and this will inevitably lead to decreased investment moving forward. This will mean that in the medium-term a proportion of suspended building projects will probably not go ahead as planned. Within all the uncertainty, practices must try to plan for these eventualities. 

What can employers do?

My first piece of advice is “Don’t panic!” – as difficult as that may be. Your role as a leader is to reassure your people and enact sensible and considered action.

Practice leaders must take steps to safeguard the health of their people and clients as the situation escalates. Existing articulated practice values and principles, along with established policies and processes, should provide the base for current and future action. This includes business continuity plans, OH&S policies, flexible work policies, technology and information systems.

Architects must put in place measures to maintain client service and delivery as much as possible. This means ensuring their people are able to work productively from home and that any downturn in workload is managed as effectively as it can be.

As an example, the following list outlines how Management for Design is building on existing policies to guide current and future action. We aim to minimise disruption, as much as we can, while ensuring we maintain the highest level of client service and responsiveness.

General health and wellbeing: Under our OH&S policies, we encourage our people to maintain safe work environments and practices to protect their health and wellbeing, with added hygiene provisions to minimise the spread of the virus. We are now encouraging and expecting our people to “work from home” as per the Government advice unless they need to be in the office to work.

Travel: All non-essential domestic and international business travel has been postponed until further notice, to minimise risk and exposure to our people, clients and communities. We will review and update this policy following further guidance from authorities. We have also advised our people to exercise caution regarding personal domestic travel, with policies and procedures to minimise the spread of the virus.

Self-quarantine: Any of our people identified as ‘at risk’ under the conditions put forth by the relevant authorities are asked to self-quarantine for the recommended period. People experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, as guided by the relevant authorities, are required to stay home and seek medical advice. 

On-site presence: We have alternative solutions to enable all our people to service our clients’ requirements, no matter where they are based. Similarly, we respect the requirements of our clients concerning our presence in their studios and can implement alternative ways to continue to deliver services and meet business needs as requested.

Business continuity and technology: Our Business Continuity Plan, values and supporting policies guide our continued operations, with existing technologies, access and processes to connect our people and clients anywhere, at any time. In the event we cannot do this face-to-face, or from our offices or those of our clients, we have the technology to continue to work with clients at any time.

Businesses are now being asked to respond to rapidly changing circumstances that are somewhat out of their control.  It is and will continue to be extremely difficult to service clients and produce work effectively as before. Business will change as a result. Our processes for delivering our work will also change. Some businesses will be impacted more than others. It’s to be expected, however, that those that adapt quickly will come through with stronger foundations and enhanced relationships.

“You never know how strong you are until strong is the only choice”—Bob Marley

Robert Peake is a director of Management for Design, and a member of the ACA – Vic/Tas Committee.