Hard times call for innovative solutions

March 6, 2009
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If you want to stump Mary Witte, ask her what her title is.

“That’s a very good question,” she said, while taking a moment to think. “You could describe me as business owner. You could describe me as president. You could describe me as an innovator. The title is kind of rough for me.”

And while she is rightfully all of those, the most fitting title may be “innovator.”

Witte is owner of r.o.i. Design, a design solutions and project management firm for the hospitality, resort, public space, workplace and retail industries. It is a small firm of seven employees, and with the economy down, the company has found its workload down, as well.

But rather than lay off employees or have some go to part-time status and lose health care benefits, Witte saw a way to keep them fully engaged in the company — and engaged with the community, as well.

“I’ve owned several small businesses, and my goal has been to not lay off people. Because of insurance, people need to work a certain level to get benefits. We said, ‘Listen guys. We don’t have enough work for everyone to work five days. If we all go to four days, I’ll pay you for 34 hours,’” she said, stating that 34 hours is the legal limit to get insurance benefits. “’But I don’t want you to come in for two hours, I want you to take those two hours and do some volunteering or community service.’”

She said the reason for moving to a 34-hour work week and requesting that employees do some community service was not only to keep them working and insured, but also to maintain perspective “by spending time with people who have greater needs than you.”

“It’s a chance to actually help other people when we’ve been too busy — and now you can’t say you’re too busy to do something.”

The seven employees are volunteering their time to the Girl Scouts, the Humane Society, and to mentoring and other endeavors.

“We acknowledge that when you’re not here, at least some of that time you’re actively engaged in the community,” she said. “It makes people feel good, and that’s what you want.”

In addition to r.o.i. design, Witte has recently started Accelerate ROI, a consulting firm that helps companies improve marketing and also conduct training.

“That’s also a result of the need to get innovative,” Witte said.

“We’re not ever going to go back to the same way (of doing business). It’s a different time.”

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