If you want to know what it will be like for MBAs who return to campus this fall, look no further than the Institute for Management Development (IMD) which re-opened in-person classes today for the first time in nearly three months since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the campus on March 13th.
The resumption of classes was made surreal by the myriad precautionary measures put in place to ensure the safety of the students, staff and faculty. Every student who arrived on the school’s Lausanne, Switzerland, campus this morning had their identity verified and their temperature checked. Each student was then issued three masks–mandatory for all hallways and corridors–for morning, afternoon and evening. Badges were handed out that indicated a student was “controlled” for the day to be on campus.
The class sessions were broken into two, with one group of 45 students in a live classroom and another group participating via Zoom. Every student in the face-to-face class was surrounded on three sides by sheets of plexiglass that were 3.6 feet high and 2.6 feet wide. Professors wore face shields to conduct a class. Staffers wiped down the plexiglass partitions with disinfectant between classes. Doorknobs and handles are being disinfected up to six times a day. Lunch had to be ordered on an app the day before. A dedicated quarantine room was established to isolate anyone who suddenly develops a cough or fever on campus. Student teams were narrowed down to four from six participants. Social tracing will be the next step.
WELCOME TO BUSINESS SCHOOL DURING COVID-19
Welcome to business school during COVID-19. For IMD, which boasts a highly ranked, one-year accelerated MBA program that kicks off in January of every year, the return to some semblance of normalcy was long overdue. The intimate group of 90 students, the school’s annual intake, had just about completed the first module of the program when the lockdown occurred. In a typical year, IMD might have two or three changes in its academic schedule. Already, the school is on its 17th version of the program because of the pandemic.
The single biggest change impacted a highlight of the MBA program: a discovery expedition to China, Ireland, and Silicon Valley in the second module that occurs in April through June. That was obviously canceled, with the hope that the immersion trip could still occur in late September. The school’s four-week break during the summer was canceled to allow students to take coursework face-to-face in early July or via Zoom. IMD was able to sign up a record number of companies for its seven-week-long consulting projects in October and November. Surprisingly, all but one of the 90 students were able to return for the unusual start, with just one woman unable to get a flight into Switzerland from Kenya.
The verdict after the first day of classes? “It was very positive,” declares Seán Meehan, the Irish-born dean of IMD. “It is a huge relief and a milestone. I see it as a baby step in the right direction but a really significant one. It’s like the first steps of a kid. We are not going to get everything right. Everybody has to get used to this. We will make some adjustments for our next teaching sessions for acrostics and everyone will do face to face. But the logistics have worked. Instead of showing up at five minutes before eight and coming through the doors in a stampede, the students started showing up at 7:20 a.m. We had enough people to do temp checks and to verify the identity of everyone in the building. It’s been a great morale booster for the school.”
‘IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS SO MUCH UNCERTAINTY IT WAS OVERWHELMING’
When the school had to shut down in March, it was not surprisingly a shock to everyone. “Initially,” recalls Meehan, “there was so much uncertainly it was overwhelming. There was a lot of anxiety. It was rough at the onset. Every MBA program is a bubble. Everyone is inside and they are living in this different world and life. But you leave that bubble and they say, ‘Oh yeah. there is other stuff going on. Once they had to do that, the penny dropped on what was going on in the world. The restaurants and shops were no longer open. All the schools had closed. You could go to a supermarket but you had to be covered, your hands were disinfected when you entered and it was all controlled entry. There was that kind of waking up and educating yourself phase.”
Lausanne on Lake Geneva is the capital city of the canton of Vaud in Switzerland. Not far from Northern Italy, it was hit relatively hard by the coronavirus. As of today, there are 5,444 confirmed cases and 389 deaths in Vaud. At IMD, one staff member was diagnosed with COVID-19 early on and has since recovered. Since the shutdown, several other staffers also were confirmed but no one was seriously ill enough to be hospitalized.
The uncertainly didn’t only impact students. “There is a saying that there are three horizons that are relevant: now, near and next. We never got out of now,” adds Meehan. “It was always what needs to be done now. When you know what you want to do, you are not going to change how you do it. A lot of effort goes in at the beginning and you go from there. All of that came to an absolute stop in March. Our planning horizon was one week. We formed a task force and we asked ourselves, ‘What do we have to do the next week?'”
‘WE JUST LAID IT OUT: ‘LET’S ALL BE ON THE SAME SIDE’
One critical decision was to be as transparent as possible. That strategy clearly paid off. Unlike many other business schools around the world, there was no organized petition to demand refunds for online classes. “I told the students we are either on your side or we’re not,'” says Meehan. “We just laid it out. ‘Let’s all be on the same side. If you can think of anything that we can do that we are not doing you need to tell us.'”
And that’s what they largely did. IMD gave small payments to students to help cover their food expenses because the MBA program includes a free lunch every day. “We knew that some students are really tight on budget and they were suffering from this. So we made a small payment. We’ve been very, very careful with open communications, very detailed with explanations for everything. We did a lot of talks with them about resilience. One speaker talked one night and asked the students, ‘Is this really the worst thing that will happen to anyone in their lives? Almost certainly, no. People are going to have far larger tragedies in their lives. You are charmed if you can go through life without a great loss or tragedy. Don’t set yourself up as a victim or a loser.'”
Once the shutdown occurred, the school created a three-week break, allowing students a bit more time to study for exams and for faculty to prepare for a virtual return. “We told ourselves, ‘We can’t just do Zoom sessions. How do we adapt to this new reality? We shortened the class sessions, we figured out how to engage people with all the techniques possible through Zoom. We redesigned some of the materials. We had that moment to collect our thoughts and figure out how to do this.
‘IT WAS EVERY DAY, ALL DAY’
“These people have made an enormous commitment, one of the biggest expenditures of their lives, so we were not going to let go. We were going to hold their hands and we asked ourselves what else can we do. We took the experiential stuff out of module two and put it in later in the year. We filled the gap with electives. We decided early on that recruiting this year would be via Zoom so we prepared sessions for students on how they can make an impression on Zoom. We stacked up a lot of resources and got practice sessions and simulations with support from over 500 alumni. We brought in motivational speakers and gave students extra coaching sessions. We did frequent town halls to keep them engaged and tried to address issues that arose.”
Getting to the point of reopening the campus was the result of weeks of planning for every contingency. When many on IMD’s staff were furloughed with the lockdown, the MBA office, says Meehan, was 100% plus. It was every day, all day. And one of the first decisions we made was to double down on the program. This is something we deeply care about. So it came to what do we have to do to put the show the road, to provide our participants with the best experience possible under these conditions. Students would want more, of course, and they want what they came for, but they can’t have it.”
Student life under COVID is different in many ways. “You have to wear a mask in the corridors and open spaces,” adds Meehan. “We came up with a plexiglass solution with holes in it to allow the voice to carry in the classroom. The plexiglass guy is suddenly doing really well. We paid a boatload of money. They get cleaned twice a day. The minute students leave, a cleaning crew comes in and disinfects everything.
‘YOU KNOW, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT. WE’RE BACK!’
“Where we used to have 90 students we now have 45 and they have a screen in front of them and two side wings that sit on the desk. You forget it’s there after a while. The professor will sometimes use a face shield instead of a mask. We had to reduce study groups from six to four. There are floor markings for social distancing and extra coffee machines so students don’t congregate at one machine. A cleaning person showed up seven times to clean the door handles today.”
But finally, IMD is back in business.
To Meehan, the payoff became immediately apparent in a casual hallway conversation with an MBA candidate behind masks today. “One of the students said to me, ‘You know, I can’t believe it. We’re back. It is awesome, and it is so much better than I can imagine. I can’t believe how happy I am. I didn’t this.'” Meehan tells the story with delight in his voice and a broad smile on his face. “It’s because they are back together,” he says. “We are like family here. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to these people at a critical moment in their lives. If we can’t go the extra step, why are we doing this in the first place?”