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Organizational Management During a Pandemic

by |May 18, 2020

Columbia University Press has recently published a new book entitled Management Fundamentals that I co-authored with my long-time friend and colleague Bill Eimicke. The goal of the book is to provide a primer in organizational management and to distill the lessons that Bill and I have learned during the many years we have both managed organizations and taught graduate students the basics of management.  In writing the book, we very deliberately left out cases and examples. We wanted to write a book that could be applied in any situation. Of course, who could have imagined the circumstances that managers are facing in the spring of 2020?  We did not write about managing an organization during a pandemic, but we did observe that:

“Communication and information technology have made it possible for work to be increasingly disconnected from places of work. While some service professions require brick-and-mortar locations, many services are delivered virtually, and much of the work required to deliver those services need not be completed on location. Network management and the reduction of vertically integrated organizations have spread an organization’s work among many physical locations.” (Cohen and Eimicke, 2020 page 165)

For many people, working from home has become the norm over the past two months. This creates a series of problems we anticipated in general terms but have now experienced in real time. We did not predict that those people (like professors) who were able to continue to be productive without working at a physical workplace would be considered fortunate but perhaps we should have. We did not think about managing the work of what we now call “front-line” workers: The people who deliver food, work in grocery and drug stores, are first responders or serve as medical professionals. We did not focus attention on those people whose work cannot be done in cyberspace but can only be done in a physical space. Nowhere in Management Fundamentals do we discuss the management of organizations with front-line functions during a pandemic. Perhaps we should have. If we had, it’s likely we would have compared it to the management of troops in combat.

The book discusses our concern about the blurring of distinctions between home and work, something many of us can now relate to. We wrote that:

Technology and the global economy mean that for some, work is now possible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The internet, low-cost communication and information, and cloud computing mean that work can follow you wherever you go. You no longer need to commute to a workplace to do many of the tasks required to complete work…The larger problem is workaholism, where people are so obsessed with work, they become limited and one-dimensional. People must now self-consciously struggle to create boundaries between work and home. There is a great deal of professional pressure to breach those boundaries, and it is not clear what new norms will develop to facilitate work-life balance. Managers must learn to require staff to defer work. Without work-life balance, burnout and declining performance is probable.” (Cohen and Eimicke, 2020 pages 168-169)

While we wrote about working from home threatening the distinction between work life and home life, we did not consider the possibility that for many people there would be no separate workplace. Even people who work at a distance most of the time, spend some of their time in physical workspaces attending meetings or interacting with clients or coworkers. The absence of three-dimensional communication is a problem we addressed by discussing the need for face-to-face interaction. As I often put it, there is a reason why people get in a jet and fly for 15 hours to attend a few meetings on the other side of the world. Sharing a meal, sitting together or experiencing an informal private moment facilitates communication and understanding and is a vital element of organizational management. Zoom or Skype meetings are better than no meetings, but they are not a substitute for live human contact. There is a part of communication that we don’t understand very well, but know it requires physical presence.

I am confident that the absence of face-to-face contact can decrease organizational productivity and increase organizational conflict. It is difficult to read body language when you don’t really see another person’s body. It is easy to misinterpret the facial expressions of someone on Zoom and as others have observed there is a slight lag between voice and image, and that lag appears to be significant. In their classic work, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman discussed a management technique they termed “management by wandering around.” This called for managers to “get out from behind their desks” and walk through workplaces to engage in informal conversations with workers and managers to gain a sense of organizational context. That is very difficult to do when we are all working from home.

Still, no organizational situation is ever ideal, and management is always about overcoming obstacles. I’ve already seen a few coping strategies that managers are using to run organizations in this virtual environment. First, I’ve found that organizational routines must become even more formal and intentional than usual. Where a once a week “check-in” meeting works well when you have the opportunity to run into people on the elevator, in this environment those meetings are often required every day. I find myself asking about a colleague’s well-being more frequently and when speaking to someone on Zoom I ask about their location and working conditions.

I find that meetings tend to take longer and at the end of the day I am often tired in a way that “regular work” doesn’t seem to cause. Everyone I work with feels the same way. People I work with seem more emotional than usual and I suspect that some of that stems from the stress caused by fear of illness and the breakdown of daily routines. Therefore, when managing an organization during a pandemic, managers must expect that colleagues will be more fragile than usual, and it is necessary to modulate communication. Do not be surprised if a message you may have sent hundreds of times before may not elicit the typical response. Routine organizational support systems have been displaced. Assistance typically provided by team members in a group setting may no longer be available. Technical assistance and other support that would have been relatively automatic must now be formally arranged. There is no supply closet with toner for the printer — it must be ordered and delivered to your home. Something as simple as depositing checks in a bank or mailing payments to a vendor must now be arranged and carefully coordinated. Informal patterns of communication that serve to reassure staff and clarify messages may well be missing. When staff is living with family and children, their ability to pay attention to the task at hand may be compromised.

Since simple standard operating procedures must be reinvented, the time it takes to develop and implement new processes either comes at the expense of other tasks or from what had once been leisure time. Managers must decide if some work can be deferred or even eliminated as priorities and focus necessarily shift. Hiring staff virtually presents even deeper challenges. Unless you already know the person you are hiring, how do you know if the new person is in synch with the culture of the organization? Dangerous short-cuts and workarounds may be attempted and efforts to replace physical organizational outputs with virtual ones may result in lower quality and a less acceptable outcome. Can a virtual happy hour ever be as joyous as the real thing?

Finally, the greatest difficulty of managing during a pandemic stems from uncertainty about the emergency’s duration and course. The most frequent question in everyone’s mind is: How much longer will this last? It is difficult to plan ahead when the future is this difficult to predict. Much of management decision-making is built on assumptions about the future largely derived from past behavior. Budgets and strategy are largely based on history. When operating in an unprecedented environment, the past is less useful in predicting the future. That is the central dilemma we now face in managing organizations in the midst of this global pandemic. Each decision made by management is a step forward into a future that is less predictable than usual.

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Lucy Lake
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Lucy Lake

I have shared this blog across our network in Africa and globally. It has resonated among those who are frontline workers who have always experienced the effects of social isolation, living as they do in remote locations, but who have seen how remote communication – deployed well – can inspire a sense of connection and solidarity that is at the core of our organizational culture and serves as the catalyst for change. We look forward to the book’s release.