Business schools look for lessons on the Covid front line
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Management academics are more vulnerable than other scholars to the accusation that they live in ivory towers.
The contrast with managers tackling real-world problems on the business front line is sometimes stark. Chief executives could take office, fail, and start enjoying early retirement in the time it takes a theoretical study to complete its journey from hypothesis to peer-reviewed publication.
As coronavirus spread, I worried that researchers who were confined to their ivory towers might sink into sterile introspection, refining theories rather than outlining practical lessons to real managers. The crisis, though, has offered a wealth of material for study. Judging from some of the contributions to the recent Academy of Management annual meeting, it has also galvanised a rapid response from academicians.
I had hoped to attend the meeting in person for the first time. But when the pandemic hit, the organisers instead gathered thousands of academics online for more than 1,500 presentations. It was a little like trying to sip from a fire hose. For a taste, seek out on YouTube the 10-minute video that groups more than 30 15-second contributions from members of the academy’s organisational behaviour division about their Covid-19 research.
Topics included: how workers from home use their time; the impact of the pandemic on creativity, stress, staff resilience and leadership styles; managerial innovation during the crisis; the efficacy of different communications strategies; and the productivity implications of business social networks such as Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Three elements make this work stand out now.
First, range. Moderator Andrew Knight, of Washington University in St Louis (whose 12-year-old son, incidentally, spliced together the video), praised the breadth of the papers’ subjects and “how rapidly people have been able to . . . collect really interesting data”.
Second, topicality. The other moderator, Sigal Barsade from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that the crisis had prompted academics to apply the organisational behaviour division’s stated priorities of “rigour, relevance, and community”. They had risen to the question “how is the pandemic influencing our work lives and what can be done about it? How can we help?”
Finally, applicability. Doctoral student Cheryl Gray from the University of South Florida worked with other researchers to tap the views of groups of nurses, engineers and university staff and examine the effectiveness of their leaders’ responses to Covid-19. The study found that managers had offered workers support in some familiar areas — flexible working schedules, better communication, appropriate protective equipment, and simple gratitude for the jobs the teams were doing.
Naturally, leaders do not set out to get in the way of team members. But workers were also asked which interventions were helpful and which were unhelpful, even if well-intended. Here is where practical lessons started to leap out. Targeted information was well-received for instance, but a blizzard of policy emails was a nuisance.
One nurse reported that managers’ deployment of untrained staff to lessen the workload actually sucked up time in training and distracted from patient care. Another nurse referred to a manager who had arranged for food deliveries to staff in the Covid-hit intensive care unit. Nice try, but “it makes me feel like instead of hazard pay we get a box of doughnuts”.
In some cases, the pandemic has added an extra layer of interest to research that was already under way. Dana Vashdi, from the University of Haifa, and others were studying team processes at a healthcare manufacturer in Shanghai when the pandemic struck China in January. They were able to test whether staff working closely together before the crisis were less depressed and lonely. The more interdependent they were before lockdown, the more resilient they seemed to be afterwards.
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It is reassuring to find scholars joining practitioners on the virtual front line, ready to do their bit to aid rapid understanding of the uncertain Covid-19 world. But this crisis is still young. Plenty of deeper, peer-reviewed work will emerge much later. Some early findings will be superseded, adjusted and even overturned. On the other hand, some of this initial work is bound to grow in relevance, as Vashdi suggested.
She was asked what managers could do now if they had not already built the strong team bonds that were in place at the Chinese company she studied. It is not too late, she said. In fact, as leaders brace for the possibility of future disruption, now may be the time to act. “See if you can change some of the ways you ask your team to do their tasks . . . If you give them tasks that are more interdependent now, that will enhance the social support before the next wave of pandemic or next issue. That’s definitely something I’d be doing if I were managing an organisation now.”
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor. Twitter: @andrewtghill