Part 2: Our office has been destroyed...now what?
In Part 1, I described how our office suffered a serious fire and we lost all of our office equipment (CE News, December 2005). Somehow our surveying equipment, although very close to the fire's origin, stayed out of harm's way and was spared. Thanks to some good planning—our company policy on backup tapes was "forget to take home the tape and you're fired"—and a little bit of luck, we recovered all of our electronic data up to the minute of the fire and were able to get up and running quickly, at least in a limited capacity. It has now been more than five months since the fire, and we've put the immediate crises behind us, but we're still trying to regain some normalcy.
After the fire, we quickly replaced computers and other obvious, major equipment. But as we continue to work in our undersized, temporary office, we're finding that what's missing are the little things: infrequently used reference books, our color plotter, and of course, that favorite family picture or kids' art work that had been on our desk—not to mention the need for a place to hang them.
It's clear that none of us could have made it through without the support of our family and stability on the home front.
My family has been particularly supportive, even though I often return home distracted with the many items left on my list. I would hate to count the conversations that have been repeated with a, "Sorry, I wasn't listening." We need vacation and family time more than ever, but spare time has been hard to come by. We try not to complain. As tough as we might sometimes think we've had it, we need only listen to the latest news from New Orleans to know that there are many people who have it much worse. One of our key employees took some time to volunteer in New Orleans and he's reiterated their plight.
Our office unit was in a business condominium, which has complicated insurance matters substantially. Because there have been questions about who is responsible for what, as well as a shortage of qualified large claim adjustors, the condo's insurance company still hasn't provided an "agreed price." The lack of an agreed price means that there will be further delay in reconstruction of our unit. This has been bad news since our temporary work quarters are tight and far from ideal, often leaving staff on edge. We've lost a few people because of the strain and have been reluctant to hire replacements until we can show them how we prefer to do business. In the meantime, we've created Hawaiian-shirt Fridays and other gimmicks.
Because insurance has been delayed and reconstruction is moving at a snail's pace, three to four hours of my time each day is still spent on fire-related issues; as if billable time for a principal weren't hard enough to achieve. It appears that we had most of the insurance coverage that we needed, including for business revenue, but I've never had a "client" consume four hours of my time every day for five straight months (and we're probably still months from move-in)! Steve, our comptroller, has done a great job processing paperwork for the insurance negotiations, but our normal financial reports don't make sense because standard benchmarks have exceptions because of the fire. Steve has become somewhat of an expert on insurance legalese and all of his projections to date have been right on the money, but the uncertainty and delay is unnerving nonetheless.
Tax planning is more complicated than ever. Because we had taken full advantage of Section 179, nearly all of our equipment was fully depreciated for tax purposes. This means that all insurance payments for equipment are fully taxable, even if used only for replacing burnt equipment. There are exceptions, which will help, but that could be an article in itself.
Nevertheless, some good things have come from the fire. Since we had nearly a complete loss, we were able to analyze all new equipment purchases and determine what should be replaced and what shouldn't.
Because of technology changes, one piece of equipment, although more expensive, often replaced two or three of its predecessors, yet we have received comments about buying "toys." One such toy that we couldn't go without is the Konica-Minolta bizhub. With this equipment, our conversion to a paperless office has gone relatively smoothly. We are scanning everything that comes into the office except the obvious junk mail. Even the most skeptical employees have embraced the process. We've noticed immediate benefits of the paperless system, including easy access to all of our files, virtually no mis-filing, and much less need for hard files, which is important because we don't have the room! As you might imagine, buying all new equipment provided a great opportunity to inventory all fixed assets as they are purchased. Fortunately, we had started the inventory process prior to the fire. Had we not been able to identify nearly everything as we took it out of the building, we would have been in serious financial trouble.
We also have set up full remote access to the computer network for our key employees, allowing them access from anywhere in the world with broadband Internet. This further enhances our virtual office, which has been imperative given both the hours that we must work to keep things rolling and our often cramped work space.
Although move-in is a minimum of six weeks away, we're starting to plan for work life after this whole mess. High on the list is a "We're back/Phoenix party" to thank those who helped us "rise from the ashes" and to invite customers and vendors to check out our new digs. As the reconstructed space starts to take shape, conversations have turned to workspace arrangements and wall colors. Although the decorating discussions are a distraction from our day-to-day work and production, they are uplifting and good for morale.
Thomas True, P.E., is president of TRUE Engineering in Bedford, N.H. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.