How to deal with COVID-19? A comparison between public and private organizations

This blog post is provided by Marlene Welzl, a student in the Master program Leading Innovative Organizations at the Johannes Kepler University Linz. Marlene has been working for the Austrian foreign ministry and is cofounder of the intergenerational housing platform Wohnbuddy.  

COVID-19 is definitely a challenge for the society as a whole. It does not matter how your personal circumstances look like – whether you are sitting alone or with your small children at home or whether you are staying 24/7 with your partner in a small city apartment -, the pandemic is a challenge for everybody. But COVID-19 is not only a challenge on the individual level, but also on the organizational level, whether it be a private business or a public organization. In this blogpost, I am discussing the similarities and differences of the crisis management between public and private organizations during the peak of the pandemic in Austria.

Since we have gained insight in how the company Blum managed COVID-19 through the interview Leonhard Dobusch from the University of Innsbruck conducted with Urs Bolter, a member of the management board of Blum, I will take the company Blum as an example for a private organization. Blum is an international and family-owned manufacturer of furniture hardware with its headquarters situated in the Austrian province Vorarlberg. Blum employs close to 8.000 people and, in addition to Austria, has production plants in the United States, Poland and Brazil. Regarding public organizations, I take the Austrian health ministry and the Austrian foreign ministry as examples, since these two ministries played a crucial role in dealing with the pandemic in the public sphere. My information regarding the crisis management of the Austrian health ministry is based on a newspaper article. Regarding the crisis management of the foreign ministry, I conducted an interview with an Austrian diplomat.

Installing internal taskforces as a reaction to the immediacy of the crisis

Whether it is the Blum company or the health or the foreign ministry, all the organizations were hit by the immediacy of the crisis. In order to deal with this immediacy, they have immediately installed organizational internal taskforces responsible for dealing with the pandemic. In the Blum company, this taskforce includes the majority of the top-management team, a few experts analyzing the necessary data for decision-making day by day and a communication specialist. This taskforce has stand-up meetings every morning and decides on a daily basis about the most important tasks that need to be done. “Within minutes we make decisions, under normal circumstances such a fast decision-making process is not possible”, reports Urs Bolter. 

In the Austrian health ministry, the taskforce consists of about 100 people including lawyers, epidemiologists, medical experts, mathematicians and communication experts. The taskforce includes internal staff as well as 17 external experts. The heads of the seven central administrative units of the health ministry, including communications, IT, action planning and resource management, meet twice a day. Everybody else that has to be part of the meeting joins per video-conference. Each unit uses two PowerPoint slides to report on the current situation. Questions include: How many people are infected by COVID-19? Where can we identify clusters of infections? What about our testing-capacities? What kind of information has been updated in the FAQ section of the Corona-Website?

In order to deal with the pandemic, the foreign ministry installed not a single but several taskforces with different responsibilities (e.g. crisis management, organization of return flights). These taskforces include only internal staff from various divisions. Since diplomats are trained as generalists, the workforce in the foreign ministry is very flexible. Not only taskforces were dealing with the pandemic, but also several departments of the ministry. Thus, the tasks of several departments shifted from “business as usual” (e.g. preparing briefings for high officials) to “dealing with exceptional times” (e.g. procuring medical goods; reporting on the developments regarding COVID-19 in foreign countries; doing shifts in the citizens service hotline).   

Getting used to the home-office and dealing with an unequal distribution of work

The 100 people who are part of the taskforce of the Austrian health ministry cannot work together physically. Apart from 7 people working in a 200 m2 big office, everybody is working from home. The Blum company, too, uses home-office for the employees who are able to do their jobs from home. In the foreign ministry, most people worked from home, except the taskforce “crisis management” and the officials involved in the citizens service hotline.

Furthermore, all organizations installed hotlines. The health and foreign ministry installed a citizens’ service hotline and the Blum company installed a hotline for its 8.000 employees living in 26 different countries. At peak times of the pandemic, the health ministry as well as the foreign ministry were supported by the military in order to manage the high amount of calls.

For the ministries as well as for the Blum company, it is only a small amount of the regular working force that is now working all day long and overtime, whereas the majority of the regular workforce worked less than under normal circumstances or some employees even were not able to work at all.

Different challenges for public and private organizations

Despite the fact that the main organizational structures that the Austrian ministries and the Blum company established in order to manage the crisis are similar, the main challenges these organizations are facing during the pandemic are quite different. Whereas the Blum company channels their resources towards safeguarding their employees’ jobs – Blum regards the protection of their employees´ jobs as their main responsibility during the pandemic – to prevent them from financial problems and thus suffering from additional pressure during these times, the ministries are challenged with gathering and preparing all the relevant information for the decision-makers, the senior officials and politicians responsible for acting in the interest of the people living in Austria. The taskforce of the health ministry gathers and filters information about relevant figures in regard to COVID-19 (e.g. infected people, recovered cases), test and hospital capacities, Covid-19 studies, legal issues, etc. This information is double-checked with public-health experts, lawyers, epidemiologists, social insurance organizations, other ministries and provincial authorities as well as the external experts of the Corona-taskforce. Based on the decisions of the politicians, legal regulations are issued and are communicated to the citizens. According to officials of the health ministry, issuing regulations at such a high-speed is one of the biggest challenges they are currently facing.

The foreign ministry is seriously challenged with organizing return flights to Austria and with being available on-call 24/7 for the citizens. The ten people working in this taskforce are busy with coordinating, gathering and reordering information they have received from the embassies and consulates. They need to gather the following information: What time are flights from destination x to Vienna scheduled? How many passengers can go on this flight? How many Austrians want to take the flight? In a next step, the officials prepare this information for the decision-makers of the ministry who decide upon the return flights in coordination with the Austrian airlines carrying out these flights.    

The pandemic as a serious challenge, but also opportunity for learning

“It feels like, if you would jump on a train that is driving 130 km/h and as soon as you are gaining hold, the train changes its direction”, Florian Pressl says, the head of operations of the taskforce of the health ministry. This statement illustrates how challenging it is to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, even for a high-reliability-organization like the health ministry that has emergency plans for a pandemic. At the same time, the ministries in Austria cooperate and communicate much more than before the pandemic. Thus, COVID-19 could be an opportunity for improving and intensifying the structures of the ministries‘ communication and cooperation in the long-run.

For Urs Bolter, member of the management board of the Blum company, it is in particular the unpredictable nature of the pandemic that makes it so difficult to deal with it, he feels like trying to read the crystal ball. In contrast to the financial crisis in 2008, the pandemic is much more difficult to handle due to its unpredictable nature. At the same time, Urs Bolter also values the personal and organizational learnings he had due to COVID-19. He realized how fast decisions can be made and how fast a product can be developed. Urs Bolter is amazed by the fact that an organization-internal app was produced within a week. “But these learnings can only result from being thrown into ice-cold water”, Urs Bolter emphasizes.  

1 thought on “How to deal with COVID-19? A comparison between public and private organizations

  1. Pingback: Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis” | Organizing in Times of Crisis

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