Planning for Health, Wellbeing & Financial Sustainability

Shaneen Fantin & Belinda Allwood , 16 April 2020

As Queensland prepared for lockdown, Cairns-based practice People Oriented Design worked on strategies with health, wellbeing and the long-term financial sustainability of the practice firmly in mind.

POD (People Oriented Design) is a multi-disciplinary architecture, landscape architecture, community engagement, project management and research practice with five team members based in Cairns, Queensland. The two practice partners of POD are Shaneen Fantin and Belinda Allwood. POD applies problem solving to any design-related project, and currently has commercial, health, housing and community projects underway from western Queensland to the Torres Strait.

What measures has your practice put in place in response to COVID-19? What are you looking at doing next?

When Queensland was preparing for lockdown, we (Belinda and Shaneen) were working together in Cape York and western Queensland, and this gave us time to brainstorm and prepare strategies to implement from 20 March, which included everything from financial to wellbeing. Safety and long-term financial sustainability for the practice were our first priorities.

We developed a COVID-19 Policy document and distributed it to our team. It covered working from home, and work health and safety at home and in the office (social distancing and cleaning regimes). We spoke to each team member individually about their concerns, ideas and what measures we could put in place to keep everyone safe and employed during this time.

We cancelled all non-essential travel and developed a roster for a maximum of two people to be in the office at any given time.

We did an extensive and detailed cashflow so that we can plan the next six months of workflow carefully. We reduced our own income as directors of the company (without reducing our hours) and asked everyone to reduce their working time. This was coupled with immediately approaching our commercial landlord for rent reductions, our bank for loan options, registering for all the incentives available for businesses at this time, and checking all our outgoings for possible areas of efficiency.

POD is a small business that does a considerable amount of charitable work for community organisations. A portion of money we make on larger projects is offset in community projects. This means we must understand our cashflow very well to be sustainable. Luckily, we have a great team that supports our philosophy.

Before Easter we spent time contacting existing and past clients, preparing for upcoming tenders and strategising on how to secure work after June 2020.

We are also active in several professional organisations at a state and national level – Belinda is a Queensland Chapter Councillor with the Australian Institute of Architects and Shaneen is on the National First Nations Advisory Working Group and on the Queensland Government Urban Design and Places Panel (QUDPP). We have been working with these organisations to provide data, advocacy and strategy on the circumstances for the profession in our region.

Do you have staff working remotely? How are you managing this – in terms of both technical / IT matters and workplace systems and cultures?

We have one team member in the office most days and four others working from home. One of our team members lives in a nearby Indigenous community and his partner is an essential worker in the community. The community they live in is in lockdown to protect vulnerable people. We have applied for and received a special exemption for this staff member to travel between the community and work for three days a week if needed.

We value flexibility for ourselves and our team members and have prioritised this since the partnership formed back in 2014. Our IT systems were already well set up for remote working, so the transition has been relatively easy. We have a weekly team meeting and then sub-team catch-ups every couple of days via Zoom, Messenger or Skype. We have Microsoft Teams, but haven’t started using it yet. This is likely to occur in the next few weeks due to security concerns about Zoom.

How are you communicating the changes to clients?

We frequently work remotely due to project-related travel. Many of our clients understand this. We immediately sent out an email explaining when we would be working from home, and that we were undertaking business as usual. We have also been relaying this message on social media.

What challenges have you encountered to date?

The greatest challenge has been that most of our private residential projects have been put on hold while people consider the current economic environment. These made up approximately 30-40% of our cashflow.

What advice would you give to other practices based on your experiences so far?

It’s important to observe how each team member responds to the COVID-19 crisis and acknowledge that each person’s experience is different. People are stressed for different reasons on different days. At POD we are known to be supportive, flexible and good listeners, but it means allowing for more emotional space in work time to ask people how they are and to give additional empathy and support where it’s needed. People’s wellbeing at home and work matters, because this affects how they feel, how they work and how the business functions.

In the past three weeks we have watched several webinars on business, finance and human resource management in COVID-19. They have all been useful in different ways. Educate yourself and ask for help and advice from professionals around you. We are all in this together.

Shaneen Fantin and Belinda Allwood are the partners of People Oriented Design (POD) in North Queensland. Shaneen and Belinda have a great appreciation and passion for the landscape, climate and people of northern Australia. Prior to creating POD, Shaneen and Belinda each worked for more than 15 years as associates, senior architects, and project managers for a variety of local, national and international firms including Arup, Peddle Thorp Architects, Opus and Troppo Architects.