Leading—While Learning—Through a Pandemic

What I've learned from the pandemic so far as dean of a business school in Seattle—an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Leading and Learning Through a Pandemic

AS DEAN OF the School of Business at the University of Washington-Bothell, I have experienced the COVID-19 phenomenon from a unique vantage point. Our campus is just over seven miles from Kirkland, Washington, an epicenter for the coronavirus. We also are located about five miles away from the Life Care Center, a senior care facility that has become a symbol of the pandemic in the U.S.—so far, at least 35 of its residents have succumbed to the disease.

The early information that we received about this pandemic was sporadic, so in the beginning it was difficult to right-size our response. I actually first heard about it from faculty who were concerned about either their own welfare or the welfare of elderly relatives. My first priority was to represent their voices to campus administrators, as the university began the complex process of coordinating a response across various stakeholders.

I think I can safely say that this situation is the largest, most abnormal, and most uncertain one that business school administrators ever had to manage through. Given that no vaccine is on the near horizon for COVID-19, it’s likely that organizations and educational institutions in most countries will be forced to ask employees and students to work from home for some time to come.  And the pandemic’s multidimensional nature—its widespread impact on the economy, society, technology, organizations, and public health—has put business schools in a position like they’ve never been in before.

As we have discovered, the COVID-19 pandemic should not be treated as just another emergency. It is a mega-emergency that is several standard deviations higher than the typical “shock to the system” that we’ve seen with past recessions or disasters. But its scale also presents an extraordinary opportunity for administrators to learn leadership lessons, on-the-fly, that we otherwise might have missed.

MODELING ADAPTABILITY AND EMPATHY

To a far greater extent than ever before, we have had to take the concepts we teach our students and apply them to our own programs and operations. These include:

Evidence-based decision making. Leaders in the University of Washington system have listened carefully to its experts on public health, virology, and related fields as they created plans to support the continuity of its programs.

Adaptability. As administrators, we have had to model an exceptionally adaptive mindset and openness to sweeping changes, such as the adoption of online instruction and the transition to remote work. The more open we are to change, the more comfortable all of our stakeholders will be with it as well.

Empathy for those most affected. We now must pay close attention to the most vulnerable members of our community who might be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These are the students who might have transportation issues, unsupportive home environments, or inadequate technology or internet speeds. We must ensure that we make our online and remote working communities as inclusive as we try to make our physical campuses.

We have worked with campus stakeholders to reach out to all of our students and staff and to raise issues that needed resolution. We are looking for ways to maintain the deep relationships we build on campus in virtual settings. We are offering financial support to students who have suffered due to shuttering of various businesses. In addition, we are looking into creating strategically located wi-fi hotspots for staff and students, as well as potentially loaning laptops to those who don’t have the proper technology at home.

We also collaborated with our IT staff to develop a page of instructions and resources for students who need additional help. Overall, our goal is to set up rituals and resources to enable a culture of support where no one feels isolated.

A learning mindset. More personally, this pandemic has led me to learn more than I could have imagined about emergency planning, technology integration, and collaboration. Generally, deans are deeply immersed in their academic silos. They often do not have to spend much time with other academic units on campus. But to manage crisis, they must collaborate with everyone from the janitorial staff to the campus chief information officer. It has been crucial to approach this time with a learning mindset and deep commitment to humanity.

OVERALL, OUR GOAL IS TO SET UP RITUALS AND RESOURCES TO ENABLE A CULTURE OF SUPPORT WHERE NO ONE FEELS ISOLATED.

In the future, we will also have to be just as flexible and creative, not only in our instruction, but in our career services support. We will have to help students and alumni. We will have to help students and alumni pivot in new directions as necessary. That’s especially true for individuals who aspire to or already work in careers hard-hit by the pandemic, such as retail, real estate, and the gig economy. We will have to adjust our course content to reflect the current realities.

Perhaps our business school’s greatest opportunity lies in the positive impact our faculty’s scholarship could have on public health. We must help our researchers apply their unique intellectual capital in areas such as management, analytics, financial models, and other domains, so that they can help decision makers across the healthcare industry become more effective. Their expertise is needed now more than ever before.

ACCELERATING ONLINE INNOVATION

Of all these concepts, adaptability will be most vital for UWB’s community in the months ahead. It certainly has been crucial over the past few weeks. For instance, just a few weeks ago, most universities and business viewed working from home (WFH) as a luxury. The pandemic forced nearly everybody—from Wall Street bankers to nonprofit CEOs to university faculty—to learn almost overnight how to work remotely.

Faculty at the University of Washington switched to online education just about two weeks before the end of our winter quarter. They had to convert final exams and presentations to online formats—some creating spreadsheets that required students to make detailed analyses of supply chain data, others asking students to give their final presentations using Zoom.

At UWB, we have found that, while some courses were more challenging to bring online than others, our faculty adapted with amazing speed to the contours of the new technology. We have quickly implemented plans to prepare those unaccustomed to distance learning to make the switch. 

As part of that plan, I prepared a message to School of Business faculty. In it, I offered the following advice to those teaching their first classes online.

Overcommunicate. This is the time for faculty to send out welcome messages, using multiple channels (email, Zoom, Canvas, etc.). Professors also can upload their profile pictures to our learning management system, as a way to reinforce their personal relationship with their students. By staying in touch and maintaining personal connections, professors can help ease student anxiety.

Survey regularly. This is also a time for faculty to stay informed about students’ overall moods and mindsets. This can be done by sending out a single question weekly, just to check in. The question could be as simple as, “How are things going?” Faculty can create more elaborate surveys using the polling functions within Zoom and Canvas, or free services such as Office Forms, Google Forms, or Catalyst WebQ.

Explain expectations clearly and repeatedly. Over the next few weeks, it will be important for faculty to keep students informed about how they should be handling scheduled deliverables and what they should have learned by course’s end. Faculty will find it especially effective to make plans for their courses and stick to them. Impromptu changes to course content could cause student performance to suffer.

Be patient. Above all, this is a time for faculty to be patient. We might expect our younger students to be digital natives who are adept at using online tools, but many of them find online learning interactions to be much different from their social media engagements.

With so many of their classes now being delivered via Zoom, it is understandable if students end up in the wrong session or mistake a course’s start time. It’s a good time to encourage them to use the Google or Outlook calendar to block out their course times.

Now that online learning has become a near-universal necessity, we will innovate our online pedagogies like never before. Our professors have already figured out how to reconfigure their homes to better teach classes. Many have quickly learned to teach across time zones. They’re facilitating peer-to-peer mentorship among students. In short, this sudden shift has forced our faculty to try new techniques to reach out to their audiences.

CONNECTING OUR COMMUNITIES

We are embracing technology not only to enhance our courses, but also to build learning communities among teachers. Our best online teachers have stepped up to hold workshops on everything from the basics of learning management systems to the integration of synchronous and asynchronous teaching techniques. Faculty have been using Zoom sessions to attend workshops on teaching, as well as breakout rooms and polls for greater interaction.

And since we switched all our research seminars and faculty meetings to online, we have found that attendance in these meetings is higher than it was when we met face-to-face. As everybody is becoming accustomed to online interaction, they have grown even more adept at engaging. We see greater participation through the use of specific features that the technology provides. Like our students, we have learned to raise our hands online.

During the swift transition we’ve made in the last few weeks, I’ve been most struck by just how far we have been able to leverage technology to strengthen our community ties. As we moved our operations online, we were mindful that we needed to put rituals into place to keep our staff engaged. To that end, we have organized regular team-level check-ins, weekly all-hands-on-deck conversations, and even weekly online social hours.

LIKE OUR STUDENTS, WE HAVE LEARNED TO RAISE OUR HANDS ONLINE.

It has been striking to see our faculty and staff at home, and to see their spouses, pets, and children join us during the social hours. In fact, many members of our staff have expressed that they feel more connected to each other now, even though they’re working remotely. Paradoxically, these interactions have enriched our understanding of each other and strengthened our bonds in ways we never would have achieved before had we not been forced to self-isolate.

This sense of connection has extended to our larger community. Given the magnitude of the pandemic’s local impact, we have felt an immense sense of service to organizations in our region. For that reason, we have organized a series of Zoom sessions, open to the world, where business leaders discuss how they are handling the challenges they now face. These range from how they’ve readjusted their supply chains, to how they’ve designed more effective WFH strategies, to how they’re now navigating the magnified perils of cybersecurity when entire organizations go virtual.

A MOMENT FOR GROWTH

As we enter this period of great experimentation, we must remember the humanity of all the actors involved. Their level of engagement will vary considerably. Some participants will simply be overwhelmed; others will be able to switch to the new world with complete ease. Either way, we must believe that all of our students, staff, and faculty will be able to adjust to the new realities. And we must communicate this message to them on a regular basis, so that they believe it as well.

One thing is for sure: This extraordinary emergency will lead to extraordinary creativity and innovation. Research shows that massive changes often provoke periods of intense learning and experimentation for organizations, as all stakeholders must quickly become open to new ways of thinking. Therefore, this time offers great opportunities for us to improve our operations and make our institutions even more prepared for future crises.

I think business school deans should anticipate a completely uncharted trajectory ahead. Once this is over, it’s likely that elements of our programs will be changed forever. We will not be able to simply reset our programs to where they were before.

At this point, we are still in a learning mode. But eventually this pandemic will go down as a historic landmark event that likely will reshape the landscape of the global economy and higher education. I believe the changes we see arise from this, and the lessons we take away from it, will be far greater than we realize even now. Given the changes ahead, it is vital that we engage in industrywide dialogue to openly address and explore the important questions that will arise in the coming months. That’s the only way to ensure that our business schools survive and thrive in the new normal to come.

Sandeep Krishnamurthy is dean of the School of Business at the University of Washington in Bothell. The views expressed here represent his personal thoughts and do not represent positions taken by the University of Washington system.

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