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Adapting and Leading in the New COVID-19 Reality

Business schools worldwide are leading efforts to help their communities amid unprecedented change; see examples, plus ways you can provide needed support.

It is incredible to see just how quickly we have moved away from business as usual. We talk about rapid change, we teach it, we warn about it—but to experience it in such an intense and unforgiving way is still a shock. With the situation still changing daily we must examine how business schools can model responsible leadership.

Where to Begin

COVID-19 has switched all gears in motion, and the swift response of business schools and individual faculty to adapt to this online reality has been impressive. As a priority, schools need to protect their communities. This requires strong leadership from business school administrators and also crisis or risk management teams that are mapping the current situation, identifying scenarios, activating contingency plans, and communicating clearly to their communities on a frequent basis.

In response, schools are busy moving everything online, using a wide range of platforms, and administrators are supporting the entire ecosystem. The following are examples of key elements of that ecosystem and ideas for how administrators can provide much-needed support.

Mutual Staff Support: While the rollout to online teaching has been swift, there are many faculty who have little to no experience with it. Online workshops and increased IT support are a given but consider identifying staff and faculty with online experience within your school—or at partner institutions—to serve as mentors and support the transition.

Resource Accessibility: Consider the spectrum of resources that students and staff typically use—how can you make them accessible remotely? Ensure that the library is communicating about online resources to students. Admissions can host online recruiting events in a way that still conveys the spirit and strengths of your particular institution. Testing mechanisms available online can include essays, exams (open for a certain period of time), and oral presentations.

Student Support: In the rush to move forward, it is important to make sure no one is left behind. For many students, this might be their first remote course experience, or they may be further challenged by access to the right technology or time zone differences. At La Trobe Business School in Australia, all students who were unable to return to campus for classes after December were organized as a separate cohort, allowing the school to ensure that their unique needs are addressed.

Non-Traditional Staff: Be aware and reach out to all your staff, including temporary employees and those who may be sick or caring for someone else. Adelaide Business School, for example, has decided to extend salary assurances under certain conditions to casual staff, to minimize impacts to their livelihoods. Grenoble Ecole de Management has set in place an emergency procedure to ensure that invoices are processed as quickly as possible.

Working From Home: Many of your staff may not only be learning how to transition to online but are doing it while working from home for the first time—potentially with other distractions. INSEAD has responded by providing daily mindfulness sessions to keep their community, including alumni, healthy and connected. They are also soliciting data from remote workers to better understand the implications of this level of remote work. In Australia, Deakin University has a dedicated Working from Home site to assist staff, while the dean of Henley Business School Africa recently hosted a public radio show on how students and workers can meet deadlines and be productive during lockdown.

Health and Well-Being: Many faculty and staff are working very long hours to get through this transition—but remember that health must come first. Take breaks, stay active, and take both your physical and mental health seriously. UniSA Business School is providing counseling and other support, while Glasgow Caledonian University provides access to apps, podcasts, and self-help guides. Seek out resources that best serve your school’s culture and environment, and lead by example.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: The entire world is enduring this experience—at almost the same time. Use this opportunity to share resources and lessons and to build connections across your own institution and beyond. There is only so much you can do—examine what is already available within your institution and seek outside resources, like AACSB, to support your work.

What Next?

The post-COVID-19 world will most likely be very different from the world business schools once dominated so easily. It will test what it truly means to be—and to prepare—“global leaders.” The decisions you make in the near term will be crucial in ensuring your institution not only survives but thrives in the long term. The good news is that there are opportunities and lessons to be learned that can strengthen the way you engage with your community internally and externally.

Become a Resource: Universities can play an important role in supporting business partners as they adapt to changes in the market. Promote research and resources from your institution that can help governments and the business sector respond to the current health crisis. Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, for example, launched a series of open webinars on navigating the COVID-19 crisis. The University of Winchester is organizing volunteers to make phone calls to socially isolated older adults, tutor local young people who are sheltering at home, deliver food to community members, and create care packages for high-risk individuals. The University of Limerick is planning to open a field hospital on campus to add capacity to their health system, and in Brazil, Fiep is implementing free vaccination campaigns to prevent flu outbreaks and minimize the impact of misdiagnoses.

Explore Win-Win Solutions: Investigate new research opportunities to enhance responses to future challenges like COVID-19. For example, the Centre for Social Impact in Australia is producing a series of fact sheets to address specific social issue areas in the context of COVID-19. Evaluate new programs that can support students, alumni, and the business community as they emerge from this crisis. Reinforce valuable mentorship initiatives, encouraging participants to support each other. Encourage students to explore and identify new business or social opportunities that could generate positive societal impact. In Canada, the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics created an online site to pair students with local businesses and industries to explore how to weather this storm, what happens next, and provide additional support.

Prepare to Teach in Different Ways: When things go back to normal, some of what we are developing now might stick around, opening the door to new ways of delivering content. Travel restrictions may impact cultural experiences, for example, but can be offset by virtual opportunities. Wellington School of Business and Government in New Zealand uses a virtual reality-based learning tool about a remote island in Fiji to give students a real feel of sustainability and climate change without having to travel there.

Update Your Programs: COVID-19 is quickly exposing some of the cracks that exist in what business schools teach. We have been gradually engaging in discussions about sustainability, but rarely have those conversations emphasized the belief that sustainability is truly fundamental to business … until now. COVID-19 will be a wakeup call about how crucial sustainability (environmental, social, and economic) is to business. For this reason, Saint Joseph’s University has suggested adding a new learning goal for students to practice systems thinking and consider the likely consequences of business practices and decisions for our vital systems—health, food, energy, housing, transportation, waste management, biodiversity, and others.

While we wait for the full impact of this crisis on our communities, it is important to pause for a moment to take a deep breath. Stay safe, take care of yourself and your loved ones, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. Don’t fixate too much on the news, stay positive, and move forward. Be role models and true global leaders. This will pass, and we will emerge with some important lessons that will strengthen business schools globally.


Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker on sustainability. Her most recent book is The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Follow her on Twitter @gweybrecht.