Perhaps the most dramatic early signs of what COVID-19 would mean to the Western world were the images coming out of Milan in March. The usually thronging streets outside the Duomo cathedral and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II became a ghost-town, spookily empty of people. As cases began to explode, the Lombardy municipal government ordered the first lockdown in a European country, a precursor of what was to come in London, Paris, New York and other major metropolises.
At the eye of the storm was SDA Bocconi School of Management, one of Europe’s most famous business schools. As of May 10th, nearly half–14,986–of the 31,000 people who have died from the coronavirus in Italy have lived in Lombardy, the hardest-hit region of Italy for which Milan is the capital. So from the beginning, with Bocconi’s urban campus in the city of Milan, the school had to adapt quickly to operate in this strange new environment of quarantine and social distancing.
More than two months later, some semblance of normalcy is beginning to return to Bocconi – albeit very tentatively. “In a limited way we can go back to school at least for individual purposes,” Francesco Daveri, director of the full-time MBA at Bocconi, tells Poets&Quants. “I went back for the first time yesterday. When we go in, our temperature is taken, and we are provided with masks and gloves. There’s a kit that every member of the staff receives. It is possible to go and work in your personal office, but we’re supposed not to have meetings and, of course, avoid as much as possible being in physical contact with other people.”
‘I HAVE A VERY CLEAR MEMORY OF THE FIRST DEATH IN LOMBARDY’
The slow return to normalcy is a warning to other business schools that coming out of this crisis will be hard, and possibly painful. It also contrasts with the speed at which Bocconi reacted at the start of the crisis. The first COVID-19 death in Lombardy occurred on Feb. 21, and was reported the following day. “I have a very clear memory of it,” recalls Daveri. “It was obvious that this was not just a Chinese problem, but one for Italy and the rest of the world. It was 3 p.m. on Sunday 23 that I decided that the full-time MBA program would go online. It took two hours to get all the professors on Zoom, and by 8:30 the next morning we were delivering classes, using Blackboard.”
At that point, the school only said that classes would be taught at distance for one week. But by the following Thursday it was clear that the MBA would remain online for at least another week. “At the end of the second week we realized that we would have to continue until Easter,” says Daveri. The gradual change helped, in terms of morale. “I think if we had said this at the start, that it would be until the end of May, it would have been very shocking.” He attempted to soothe MBA students, numbering 93 in the Class of 2020 from 35 countries around the world, by giving a personal guarantee that their experience would still be high-quality and their investment protected.
At the start, some students were predictably unhappy. “A minority complained, as you would expect, saying that they weren’t learning online and they were very discouraged,” concedes Daveri. “I spoke to them. Now I think that working this way has become part of their toolkit.” As he points out, if you work in a multinational setting, then online meetings, working as a team remotely and building relationships when you only ever see someone on a screen, are a normal part of professional life. Still, he remains committed to face-to-face teaching and is convinced of its value.
ONE IN FOUR STUDENTS FOUND THEMSELVES STUCK ABROAD WHEN THE CRISIS HIT
Luckily, no students, staff or faculty are known to have come down with the virus. In late March, two professors experienced the flue for a few days and their online classes had to be postponed. They did not go to the hospital, instead they stayed home in self-isolation, then recovered and held their classes from home like every other professor teaching in the MBA program.
Obviously, some disruption has occurred. Roughly 25% of the school’s students are stuck abroad – mostly because they were job-searching in other countries. Trips to other countries have not been possible. Others complain that they have missed the opportunity to interact face-to-face with visiting professors, speakers and potential employers. Bocconi will offer students supplementary classes this autumn to make up for what they have lost. A satisfaction survey carried out by the students found that most accepted that this was a difficult situation, and that the majority remain satisfied with their experience, says Daveri.
Some students are not surprisingly anxious about finding a job by December. (Bocconi’s 15-month full-time MBA runs from September one year, to December, the next.) But, Daveri says, this is typical for the time of year: May is the time of maximum anxiety anyway because internships and jobs are being finalized. By June, the situation typically settles. But that is in a normal year, without a recession.
Nonetheless, Bocconi expects a similar pattern this year. Wishful thinking as the global economy plunges into a deep recession? Daveri says that most companies that recruit MBAs are taking a long-term view and have not frozen recruitment because of the crisis. He expects other more risk-averse companies to come back to the market well before Bocconi’s graduates spill out of the school by year-end. Obviously, face-to-face interaction with potential employers is necessary, and from now on the school will help students have these meetings on campus, one-to-one, while obeying the new social distancing guidelines.