Why we treat the climate crisis differently than the COVID-19 crisis – and why this needs to change

An essay by Kathrin Ruhnke from the Universität Hamburg, who is currently in her second year of the master’s programme International Business and Sustainability. She also works for the non-profit organisation Das macht Schule as a project manager for the E-Waste Race, a nation-wide school project on e-waste, recycling and environmental education.

The global community is currently facing an unprecedented crisis. Countless people have already been killed and many more are expected to fall victim to it. It is a health crisis as much as an economic crisis as it threatens the lives of humans and the existence of companies and whole economies alike. It spotlights insufficiencies in our infrastructures and our systems. It amplifies inequalities as those living in poorer and less developed parts of the world suffer the most. It is the climate crisis – a crisis that is currently overshadowed by another one, namely the pandemic caused by the novel COVID-19 virus which has taken over the world since its outbreak in late 2019. Both represent grand challenges, meaning they are “complex, uncertain and evaluative” (Ferraro et al., p. 365). However, while they both pose serious threats to humankind and have many similar effects as the boundaries between these interconnected challenges are fluid,  the two crises are perceived and engaged with very differently: Only one of them has been the primary subject of the world’s newspapers, media channels and public discussion and only one of them has caused disruptive change and radical political action. Advocates of climate action are demanding the same urgency and extensive measures for our global climate crisis. This essay will dismantle the manifold reasons that underly the perception differences and subsequent disparity in engagement and action with regard to these two grand challenges. The aim is to contribute to the discourse on climate action, to illuminate relevant aspects that need to be addressed in order to achieve a similar status for climate change as for the current pandemic, and to argue for why this needs to be achieved.

One of the key aspects that cause us to perceive the COVID-19 crisis and climate change differently is the language we use when discussing these grand challenges. Framing, i.e. the “reformulation of a message and its consequences” (Keren, 2011, p. xi), plays a crucial role in the way we perceive the world. This relationship – the interplay between language and cognition – has been studied by linguists, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers for centuries. By now, numerous studies have shown that the selection of words affect “our memories, judgements, and reasoning” (Harley, 2010, p. 111). Therefore, the way an event is framed shapes how it is perceived. COVID-19 and climate change are perfect examples for this: While the current pandemic has been framed by politicians and the media as a ‘crisis’ from the outset, we still use the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ to describe the human-caused heating of the earth’s surface that is going to cause (and is, in fact, already causing) catastrophic events. The term ‘change’ is not inherently negative as it describes “the result of something becoming different” (Cambridge University Press). Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur, put it like this: “Global is good. Warm is good. Even greenhouses are good places. How can ‘global warming’ be bad?” (Godin, 2006). Hence, many are claiming that the narrative around climate change needs to be shifted. A study by SPARK Neuro tested the emotional responses to different terms for what is commonly referred to as ‘climate change’ and found that the term ‘climate crisis’ caused over three times as much emotional intensity in the participants – a critical fact as emotion is known to be a key determinant of our perceptions and actions. Others are questioning whether climate change really a crisis the way that the current pandemic is one. While defining ‘crisis’ is not trivial, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes it as “a time of great danger, difficulty or doubt when problems must be solved or important decisions must be made” – a description that inarguably fits climate change. Another reason why ‘climate crisis’ should be the chosen term is that the it infuses a sense of urgency that is vital to trigger action. The terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ “do not demonstrate how urgent and catastrophic our environmental position is” (Whiting, 2019). Some have started to recognise the grand power language has over our perception with regard to climate change, like the UK newspaper The Guardian which, in 2019, announced their preference of the terms ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ over ‘climate change’ (Carrington, 2019). While this is a first step in the right direction, describing the heating of the earth’s surface and its consequences as the crisis that it is will need to seep into common discourse in order to change the way it is perceived and to make it as much of a crisis in the public’s mind as COVID-19. As Greta Thunberg put it: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?” (Thunberg, 2019). From this point onward, ‘climate crisis’ will therefore be the chosen term in the course of this essay.

Another factor that greatly impacts the way we perceive grand challenges such as COVID-19 and the climate crisis is psychological distance, i.e. the “subjective mental formation of how close an object or an event is perceived” (Chang et al., 2015, p. 160). Construal level theory suggests that this distance exists on different dimensions, namely time, space, as social distance as well as in the form of hypotheticality (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Zooming in on these dimensions of psychological distance individually aids in explaining why COVID-19 and the climate crisis are perceived so differently. With regard to time, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic already affects our daily lives. The climate crisis, on the other hand, is perceived as something that will mainly affect future generations and therefore appears less relevant at the time being and consequently more distant. The spatial dimension supports this difference, too. While the consequences of the climate crisis that are already visible mostly affect people in poorer and less-developed countries (United Nations, 2016), the current global pandemic is affecting industrialised nations just as much as other countries, with the US currently having the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths worldwide (John Hopkins University & Medicine), thus bringing the COVID-19 crisis closer to people’s own front doors. Similarly, social distance relates to the aspect of whether an event has “an impact on people similar to [our]selves” (Spence et al., 2012, p. 962). This is linked to the previous dimension in that from a Westerner’s point of view the climate crisis, at least currently, mainly affects people from far-away countries who are perceived as different and therefore socially distant. COVID-19, on the other hand, is affecting our families, friends and neighbours, and is therefore socially very close to our own homes. The fourth dimension of psychological distance, i.e. hypotheticality, relates to the extent to which someone believes an event is happening. With new reports on the pandemic on the news every day and the political actions taken to combat the spread of the virus drastically changing our everyday life, COVID-19 seems as certain a crisis as can be. The climate crisis, on the other hand, still has an aspect of uncertainty with possible scenarios of a hypothetical future described by scientists that is unimaginable to many. Hence, for most people the climate crisis is far more psychologically distant on all four dimensions than COVID-19, and because of this they also engage with it to a far lesser extent. “Climate change is an abstract statistical phenomenon, namely a slow and gradual modification of average climate conditions, and thus a difficult phenomenon to detect and assess accurately based on personal experience” (Weber, 2016, p. 125). This phenomenon of psychological distance seems not only to explain why the general public perceives the two grand challenges differently but may also elucidate reasons for the actions (and inactions) of world leaders.

Besides framing and psychological distance, media coverage on the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis is a relevant factor in explaining the varying perceptions and engagement levels as “[m]edia coverage sets the agenda for public debate” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020). While there are additional sources that prompt discussion, it is prominently the media that determines what is debated publicly and that impacts how people perceive the world. This can also be observed currently: The amount of media coverage on COVID-19 is unprecedented as the pandemic is “being mentioned in 80 per cent of stories some days” (Hannam, 2020). The extensive media coverage on the pandemic clearly overshadows the climate crisis. A graph by the Media and Climate Change Observatory shows that the world newspaper coverage on ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ plummeted from nearly 800 articles per source in November 2018 to less than 300 in June 2020. This corresponds with Whitmarsh and Capstick (2018) who found that media “plays a key role in shifting public concern away from environmental issues toward other (e.g., economic) ones” (p. 24). The amount of media attention is not the only aspect that is relevant with regard to public perception and engagement, however. Important is also the sentiment in which the crises are depicted. The coverage on COVID-19 seems to mainly include two messages: one promoting a sense of togetherness and one promoting fear. On the one hand, media puts the individual into the spotlight by stressing the importance of considerate behaviour and emphasising that we “have to stick together” (Sherman, 2020). On the other hand, “fear has played a particularly vital role in coverage of the coronavirus outbreak” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020) as the media refers to it as ‘killer virus’. This sentiment, however, appears to be welcomed because of people’s “thirst for information — and entertainment” (Molla, 2020). Either way, both togetherness and fear are addressing people’s emotions, which is a catalyst for action. With the climate crisis, the sentiment is different as it is “still reported as an overwhelming problem for which solutions are not being developed and implemented” (Mellet, 2020). This goes hand in hand with the aspects of framing and psychological distance discussed above because of a “journalistic bias toward distant and consequence framing in which the civil society remains dismissed from climate change adaptation” (Mellett, 2020). This abstraction of the climate crisis is contrary to the media coverage of COVID-19 in which individuals play a central role and therefore can explain in part why these two grand challenges are perceived and engaged with differently. It remains to say that media has great influential power with regard to people’s behaviour as the example of panic-buying during the outset of the pandemic showed, which is often said to have been caused by (social) media. This power of impacting people’s perceptions and actions should be utilised for the climate crisis which poses just as much of a risk to humans as the current pandemic does.

While the international discourse on the climate crisis is often characterised by apportionment of blame, the current pandemic is accompanied by new levels of international cooperation – a difference that impacts perceptions of and engagement with these two grand challenges. One causes the global community to feel closer as they take on the role of victims (“humanity faces a common enemy in the Covid-19 pandemic” (RT International, 2020)), while the other is mainly portrayed as being certain nations’ fault (“Who’s Most Responsible for Climate Change?” (Lynn, 2015)). From a crisis communication point of view, COVID-19 can be classified as a ‘natural disaster’, meaning that companies and nations can adopt the role of victims (cf. Adkins, 2010). Even though the consequences of the climate crisis are technically speaking also natural disasters (floods, droughts, wildfires, etc.), there is a stronger sense of responsibility as scientist spent the past decades explaining that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases are the reason for the heating of the earth. While some scientists (including Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier) argue COVID-19 is also man-made, the global community still feels that they have fallen victim to this disease that is entirely out of their sphere of responsibility. “Coronavirus is a simple, scary threat — and we’re not the villain” (Paddison, 2020). This makes it easier for political leaders to take action as they will be regarded as heroes for combatting this crisis to which they, too, have fallen victim. With the climate crisis, however, any action that is taken by nations could be perceived as an admission of guilt. The unprecedented levels of international cooperation during the current pandemic that have resulted from the common victimhood seem to have caused more openness to innovative ideas. New forms of organising that emphasise social purpose (Mair & Rathert, 2019), such as crowdsourcing and ad-hoc networks are introduced by governments (e.g. the #wirvsvirus hackathon in Germany) in order to quickly find solutions for the issues at hand. Similarly, open science seems to play an integral part in how solutions for the current pandemic are sought. “The intense communication has catalyzed an unusual level of collaboration among scientists that, combined with scientific advances, has enabled research to move faster than during any previous outbreak” (Kupferschmidt, 2020). Such openness has not been displayed and encouraged by political leaders with regard to the climate crisis. However, we can now see how quickly innovative approaches for tackling the manifold effects of a grand challenge can be developed if nations, scientists and the public work together. This kind of approach is what is needed if we want to circumvent a climate disaster.

The reasons for the climate crisis being perceived and engaged with differently than the current pandemic are manifold and all of the aspects mentioned are somewhat interlinked. The way we frame a grand challenge impacts the extent to which a crisis is psychologically distant to us. Media coverage plays a major role in determining the language the public uses to talk about a crisis. The way we spin the story, i.e. whether we are victims or offenders, seems to majorly affect the actions taken. What are the implications of this for climate action? We need to frame the climate crisis in the same urgent manner as COVID-19. We need to understand that the climate crisis is not abstract and distant but already impacts the daily lives of many and will soon determine all our lives as the COVID-19 virus currently does. The media needs to ensure extensive coverage on the climate crisis that engages the audience emotionally to trigger action. We need to collaborate globally and work innovatively to find effective solutions. Imagine political leaders speaking to their nations in special addresses on the climate crisis like this: “But we must now reduce everything that could put people at risk, everything that could harm not only individuals, but also the community” (Merkel, 2020). Adapting the words of Merkel’s speech on the COVID-19 outbreak, it remains to say that we are not condemned to accept the heating of the earth as an inevitable fact of life – we have the means to fight it. The COVID-19 outbreak shows that it can be achieved.

References

Adkins, G. (2010). Organizational networks in disaster response: An examination of the US Government network’s efforts in Hurricane Katrina. In W. Coombs & S. Holladay, The Handbook of Crisis Communication (pp. 93-114). Wiley.

Chang, H., Zhang, L., & Xie, G. (2015). Message framing in green advertising: the effect of construal level and consumer environmental concern. International Journal of Advertising, 34(1), 158-176.

Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015). Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited. Organization Studies, 36(3), 363-390. doi: 10.1177/0170840614563742

Harley, T. A. (2010). Thought. In Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science (pp. 89-115). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Keren, G. (2011). Perspectives on framing. New York: Psychology Press.

Mair, J., & Rathert, N. (2019). Alternative organizing with social purpose: revisiting institutional analysis of market-based activity. Socio-Economic Review, 1-20, in press. doi: 10.1093/ser/mwz031

SPARK Neuro. (2019). Rebranding Climate Change. New York City: SPARK Neuro.

Spence, A., Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. (2012). The Psychological Distance of Climate Change. Risk Analysis32(6), 957-972. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01695.x

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117(2), 440-463.

Weber, E. (2016). What shapes perceptions of climate change? New research since 2010. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change7(1), 125-134. doi: 10.1002/wcc.377

Whitmarsh, L., & Capstick, S. (2018). Perceptions of climate change. Psychology And Climate Change, 13-33. doi: 10.1016/b978-0-12-813130-5.00002-3

Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis”

JKU analogue lecture theatre

For all of us that have taught “Organizing in times of crisis” for the first time last summer term, and with the last student essays as well as student feedbacks coming in, now is a time to take stock and share our experiences.

One of our aims in providing this open course platform was to provide course material for a full 6 or even 8 ECTS module, but also give instructors the opportunity to “mix and match” just selected elements of all the course materials. This is exactly what happened: some of us taught all the classes, requiring all the assigmens, for full credit modules; others used selected modules and reduced the number of assignments to fit with smaller 3 ECTS modules or to accompany lectures; and yet other used just individual sessions as part of other courses. Similarly, while we provided a course structure that could be administered in a fully asynchronous way, some of us actually followed this asynchroneous model, whereas others offered some (2-3) synchronous sessions and yet others had weekly synchronous online teaching sessions in which students had to give presentations, for example.

We had mixed impressions of the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous versus asynchronous teaching. Those that had many synchronous sessions felt that it was very tiring to concentrate over time, especially with the absence of non-verbal cues and already very high screen time. Conversely, the synchronous sessions were a great chance to catch up with students and get a sense of how everyone was doing. Hannah Trittin from the Leuphana University, for instance, used the synchronous sessions to give students a place to talk to each other during a difficult time. Hannah says that “The students valued that my session openers encouraged communication. For example, I would ask students to quickly grab an object that is valuable to them and present it and its meaning to them in class.”

Those that followed the largely asynchronous mode – which includes myself – felt that giving only written feedback to assignments was not only very time-consuming, but also made it difficult to explain the complex issues at hand in an adequate way. Synchronous teaching sessions are great for addressing some general questions that all students might have and also probing a bit deeper into students’ understanding. These impressions were largely mirrored by the students: at JKU, for instance, I offered the opportunity for additional synchronous sessions, but the majority of students preferred the autonomy of the asynchronous learning mode because they also already had to spend so many hours in front of the computer screen.

Students from Leuphana University appreciated the flexibility of self-study and being able to watch presentations in their own time, the flipped classroom model, the collaboration with other university professors that were experts on their respective topics, the practical relevance of the course and the various small and sometimes creative assignments students had to complete. At the same time, some students missed more opportunities for feedback and exchange. When deciding on the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching of this – or other – courses, context conditions like students’ work loads (how many hours do they already spend in front of the computer?) as well as student numbers and teaching resources (how many written assignments is one able to read and give feedback on with the resources at hand?) thus need to be considered. One of us had great experiences with voluntary virtual Zoom sessions, which only the students that wanted more feedback and exchange attended. Such a model might be useful should the intensive distance learning situation continue. Otherwise, a hybrid approach in which reading, listening (to lectures, but also student presentations) and writing is asynchronous, but regular reflection and discussion sessions for all are held synchronously is probably preferable to a purely asynchroneous mode to deepen the learning experience. Yet, these sessions should be short if they have to be online to limit the screen time, but could be much longer if they were held in person.

Another key aim we had was to bring the expertise of different colleagues that we knew were experts on various facets of crisis management into the (virtual) classroom. All of us found it greatly enriching to not just read and discuss our colleagues’ articles, but to actually have their voices directly with us. Furthermore, we wanted students to be able to transfer the sometimes quite complex and “dry” organization theoretical knowledge to the actual, real-life crisis situation by connecting lectures, scientific articles and newspaper pieces. On this, a student from Viadrina University commented that “I really liked that you picked the article on the Stockwell shootings and I appreciate that you do not just look at management issues, but big societal problems. This is very important to me personally. I also think it is really special that this course is not just a Viadrina course, but that students from other universities are dealing with the same topics. Thank you very much for this opportunity.” Similarly, a student from Hamburg University stated that “Finally a course that really meets the current „Zeitgeist“! Congratulations to the professors for putting together a course in such a short period of time, filled with relevant and genuinely interesting topics. This course really encouraged us to engage with the COVID-19 situation on a deeper level rather than observing it from the sidelines.” As instructors, we felt the same way. If the Covid-19 crisis continues into the next year, which it most likely will, we will surely teach this course again. Some of us will shorten synchronous online teaching, some of us will expand it – and all of us will hope for more in-person interaction time with our students.

We actually have not received much feedback about the blog which accompanies our teaching platform. We think that the blog is a great place for sharing information and reflection on ongoing developments, giving reading and even literature and movie advice, as well as for posting selected student essays and assignments (e.g. here, here and here). This way we can enable a virtual conversation between professors and students from different universities thinking about similar topics. Maybe students were so busy with their regular assignments that they did not follow or use the blog very closely. Thus, another opportunity for the next iteration of this course might be to actively encourage students to write blog posts as part of their assignments. For instance, we posted one video interview with an Austrian company owner and his way of dealing with the crisis. Conducting and sharing such videos on the platform could be a different kind of assignment for students to complete, thus contributing to collective knowledge on “Organizing in Times of Crisis”.

Let’s close with a longer reflection from a student from the Viadrina University: “2020 has been a challenging and confusing year, leading to chaos everywhere. During the most intense phase of social distancing, the semester at the University began. The weeks before were characterized by uncertainty and missing information. This unprecedented time forced a lot of companies to initiate a hiring freeze, which lead to a lot of challenges for the organization I am working for, as it is making revenue through placing job ads. It is obvious that we were and still are facing one of the most challenging crises of my lifetime. This crisis motivated me to try to understand how my co-workers, my supervisors, and I should respond and why some actions were undertaken. Nothing was working the usual way. Because of that, the course with the title “Organizing in Times of Crisis” evoked interest. The description convinced me that I will get a different perspective on the situation and the challenges I personally, my company, and the world face. I hoped I would be able to interlink my own experiences with research and knowledge. I enjoyed the chance to get insight into teaching at other universities all across Germany and Austria. Despite being unable to discover new places it created a sense of unity. In addition to that, even though the material was aligned, the multitude of content created by different people in different manners resulted in a multi-facetted, diversified course. As I was allowed to choose the material that was most appealing to me I was able to learn more about topics that really connected with me, like the article about the hospital in Sarasota where I worked as an intern in 2016. Eventually, the task of writing an essay instead of a seminar paper introduced me to a different format of academic thinking and writing and allowed me to interpret this overwhelming situation more openly. All of these aspects convince me that the knowledge I compiled is stored in my long-term memory.”

Governance responses of infectious disease outbreaks

In module four of this course, you can learn about the dynamics of network governence in the light of emergency. Professor Jörg Raab vom Tilburg University, together with colleagues from Tilburg and from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, has conducted an empirical study on different network governance responses to different pathogens. The results are described in the article “Ex ante knowledge for infectious disease outbreaks” listed under background readings, but also briefly introduced in this video by Jörg Raab. The authors conclude that, first of all, different pathogens create different actor and network structures. In any case, a network coordinating authority (NCA) is needed. In order to function effectively, this NCA not only needs a clear mandate to coordinate the different actors involved in handling the crisis, but also sufficient time and resources as well as the managerial skills of how to governing a dynamically involving network, which includes an awareness and regular monitoring of its evolution over time.

Are women the better crisis leaders?

An essay by Diandra Pittelli, student at the Europan University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany

The corona pandemic has proven to be more than a mere “flu”, it has the world completely under control and has shaped it in many ways. Some countries are more affected than others, and it therefore comes as no surprise that governments also react differently to the crisis.

Reading the newspapers lately, one could easily get the impression that there is a competition in which everyone is rooting to see which countries cope best with the corona crisis. This comparison, which took place in the media, also identified some winners, and they all have something in common: they are females. At the top of the list of role models we find Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, or the heads of government of Finland, Taiwan, Norway and Iceland. Given this list, one might conclude that women are better at dealing with the crisis simply because they are women. Similar conclusions were drawn after the 2008 financial crisis, a world ruled by women was considered friendlier and less aggressive. Christine Lagarde, head of IMF, even stated in The Guardian (2018) that if the bank had been called Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers, it would be a different world. As always, the focus is on the ascribed qualities of empathy and care, “It is as if they could hug us warmly and lovingly from the video”, said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in Forbes (2020) when talking about the leading style of certain female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis.

In Prof. Dr Jochen Koch’s video “Leading, Sensemaking and the Future“, he says that leadership in crisis represents a balancing act between the need to absorb uncertainty and, on the other hand, the need for open communication. Based on this background I will take a more in-depth look into how politicians are absorbing uncertainty and communicating during the COVID-19 crisis and, by so doing, I want to see if the medias winners (female leaders) are indeed the better crisis leaders.

When talking about top leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted predominantly female politicians. There is Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who explains the infection rates of Covid-19 to the people clearly and soberly. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who exchanges empathy with her people live on Facebook and led her country to the lockdown early on, counts 22 dead so far with a population of 4.9 million inhabitants. Katrín Jakobsdóttir from Iceland stood out in the media for letting everyone in the country get tested for free. Not to forget about the heads of government of Scotland and Taiwan, who received positive feedback, or Erna Solberg in Norway, who held a press conference especially for children and assured them that it was perfectly okay if they were afraid. These women did not hesitate to frame this event as a crisis to create a form of urgency and to drop the old way to handle things and to adopt new tools. Obviously, other countries have also successfully curbed coronavirus spread, but those with female heads are specially pointed out.

Why is that? Right from the beginning of the corona crisis, those female leaders acted resolutely, transparently and, at the same time, showed empathy towards their citizens. Those female politicians absorbed uncertainty and created a common pattern of orientation that made action possible. The opposite is evident with some of their male counterparts. Several heads of state rely on authority and war rhetoric in the corona crisis, have downplayed the seriousness of the situation for a long time or even pointed their finger at other countries. Helen Lewis points out in the “Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft” journal (2020) that women, including those in top positions, appear to take fewer risks than men. Although there is still plenty of research to be done to verify her affirmation, this assumption is widely spread in society, which makes it easier for female politicians to communicate precautionary measures such as school closings or the mandatory wearing of face masks. As a “strong man”, it seems to be more challenging to make risk-averse decisions. The sociologist Eva Illouz stated in Die Zeit (2020) that the reasons for the success of female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis is that “Women pay attention to people and their well-being, while men pay attention to the economy”. According to Illouz, women are so socialized that they act “economically, medically and socially with foresight”.

So far, the prudent government style of female leaders has shown to be very successful; it is therefore, to no surprise that the media headlines are crowning women as the better crisis leaders.

However, saying that women are better crisis leaders just because of their “maternal instincts” is not only wrong, but also potentially dangerous for the advancement of women in politics. Women in politics are no better, “strong men” are just worse. Let us start with the most obvious example: Donald Trump. In the past few weeks, the president has found that his policies against lung disease are useless, that the coronavirus cannot be intimidated, dismissed or degraded. “Strong men” come to power because they promise security in uncertain times. They present a simple enemy to the people and claim that only they can take them on. The more power they accumulate by delegitimizing opposition leaders and the press, the better this strategy works. However, the virus cannot be delegitimized. Xi Jinping was faced with this problem at the outset of the pandemic when the Chinese government tried to suppress warnings from doctors about the new disease in Wuhan. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil dismissed the coronavirus as a “small flu or cold” and took part in a demonstration against the lockdown in April. While he was demonstrating, his head of communication was already infected. However, female heads of state can hardly be judged as a group because they still represent a small minority given that there are only 14 states with women in the highest position of executive power out of 193 UN member states. Therefore, every analysis of the female leadership figure suffers from a small number of possible cases to observe.

Three further aspects that debunk the statement “women are the better crisis leader” are as follows. First, many sociologists are comparing countries and economies in an undifferentiated way and reduce the differences to the gender of the government. Second, it is too early to assess which reactions to COVID-19 are the most successful from a health and economic perspective. Third, what about the male heads of state who are receiving positive feedbacks regarding their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis like Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor?

So, what can we say about top female politicians? Are women the better crisis leader? As a woman myself, I would have no hesitation in confirming this statement positively. Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw conclusions from general studies because a person who makes it to the top in politics must be somehow unusual to start with. He or she needs talent, ambition, vigor and also favorable living conditions. In countries that are not used to female managers, a woman who works her way up to the top should be particularly tough and determined.

At first glance, the fact that top female politicians are better because they have more “empathy” is an attractive argument. Nevertheless, we should be aware of such arguments, because this essentialist gender perspective – men are like this, women like this – has historically always hampered women and is hugely reductionist. Besides, this argument overrides the fact that successful male top politicians also have empathy; in a functioning democracy in which it is essential to collect as many votes as possible, social competence is an advantage. A further possible explanation of why countries with female heads of state do better in this crisis should provide an incentive to think of other mechanisms. For instance, women would come to power more easily in a political culture “in which the government has a fair amount of support and trust,”  argues an article in The Guardian (2020). A country that chooses a “strong man” or where such a person can stay in power through electoral fraud is already in deep trouble.

Concluding, it is therefore not possible to say “women are the better crisis leader” without any hesitation. After hundreds of years of dogma that men are inherently better crisis leaders, the opposite is not suddenly true. Heads of state are not the cause, but a symptom of better government.

Covid-19 – not just a crisis of leadership, but also followership?

LIO master student Peter Gollowitsch has already reflected about the Special Issue “Leadership and the coronavirus crisis” in the journal “Leadership”. Here, Yiannis Gabriel, professor of leadership at the University of Bath, already reflected about the relationship between leaders and followers in the current crisis by drawing on a comparison between Homer’s Ulysses and Kafka’s short story “The Silence of the Sirens”. In a recent blog post, he extends these reflections to ask what we, as followers, can do to avoid a “regress to primitive forms of mental functioning” where we classify things as either good or evil and look for someone to blame for our troubles.

Instead, he suggests that we start by accepting uncertainty. “Like millions of people before us who lived through wars, dislocations, famines, and natural disasters, we must understand that safety and certainty are desirable but cannot be vouchsafed by anyone. Politicians are unable to provide safety and certainty, but neither are scientists.” As a second measure, we can take responsibility for our own actions, “aiming to reduce the risks to ourselves and our fellow citizens.” Here, again, we need to accept the uncertainty that what is thought to be risky/responsible behavior is likely to change over time as our knowledge about the pandemic changes. Third, he asks us to “strengthen our communal attempts to address the suffering of those of our fellow citizens who are worst hit by the crisis.”

He concludes that “As a test of followership, the best that COVID-19 can offer us is an opportunity to accept and live with the adversities of life; liberate ourselves from false beliefs in the omnipotence of leadership, scientific and political, in resolving all our troubles; and restore our faith in ourselves as citizens capable of holding our leaders to account, while taking responsibility for our own actions.”

As recent developments show, it seems to be exactly this latter point which is surprisingly difficult to achieve. In expressing their disappointment with leadership unable to provide clear guidance and a quick solution, many people react by blaming leaders, opening up to conspiracy theories, denying the risks posed by the pandemic and turning to irresponsible behavior. Yet, the way forward seems to lie in the ambigous zone between “good” and “evil”: accepting that leaders may be wrong and uncertain themselves, accepting that scientific knowledge is changing, accepting that there is no ultimate truth yet at the same time also behaving in a responsible way on the basis of the best knowledge we have. Being responsible to fellow citizens does not imply being uncritical of the measures taken and of societal developments, it does not imply a blind followership of political leaders – but indeed, this is hard to fit into a “good” vs “evil”, “them” versus “us” scheme as evidenced currently between those that wear masks in certain situations (declared as uncritical and blind followers manipulated by the government) and those that don’t (self-declared as the only critical minds left).

Reflections on the pandemic as a chance to collaboratively modernize higher education

Hannah Trittin, Assistant Professor of Business Ethics at Leuphana University Lüneburg and organizer of the classes 6 (social media) and 11 (inequality), has reflected on her experience in participating in our “Times of Crisis” course in a Story for Future for the OS4future initiative.

She argues that “the course sets a signal that despite the growing international competition in academia, joining forces and acting together is possible and can deliver great results. It also offers a glimpse into the potentially bright future of higher education teaching in which we stop thinking in silos. Rather than keeping material developed by individual professors locked up in university-specific platforms, this course combines the knowledge of several experts, and makes it available to the general public.”

She also questions whether this will mean professors will become redundant: “After all, if teaching material is available, including reading and assignment suggestions, all you need then is a person who is willing and capable to grade student assignments.” However, she does not agree with this view (and nor do I): “The Times of Crisis project shows that only because of high quality research that the involved colleagues conduct, the teaching material is diverse, yet, of high quality. Furthermore, the course instructors at each university spent a significant amount of time on discussing the course contents and assignments with students – just as they would have in a traditional course format – whether it is asynchronous or synchronous. Simply put: online teaching materials complement, but do not replace good teaching.”

Excitingly, Hannah is already thinking about her next open course project. Together with Copenhagen Business School, she will conduct a joined global classroom project on datafication (https://dataandorganisations.org/) using materials provided by scholars such as Mikkel Flyverboom (CSB), Armin Beverungen (Leuphana) and Thomas Gegenhuber (Leuphana) to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives to the topic of data and organizations.

I myself took the inspiration further and, together with colleagues from Australia, Germany, the UK and the US, set up the UP:IT platform to build an online teaching collection on sustainable development and transformation.

I fully agree with Hannah: “My hope is that this project inspires other colleagues to make their material available, so that a broad audience has access to publicly funded expert knowledge. I will certainly continue to walk this path.”

Blurring the line between social and economic imperative – an optimistic revaluation of social leadership in a crisis

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkassi on Unsplash

This blog post is provided by Peter Gollowitsch, a student in the Master program Leading Innovative Organizations at the Johannes Kepler University Linz. Peter is (co-)founder of several start-ups and also Director Consulting and Concept at netural.  

Normally an organization’s environment changes at variable, but reasonably foreseeable levels. It is a leadership task to continuously monitor and control the effects those changes might have on the organization. Sometimes the amplitude of this “frequency of change” is higher, leading to a higher degree of management attention. As soon as management has adopted the organization to the consequences of such a change (or the threat luckily has passed by), management attention for environmental variables goes back to a normal level. To the contrary, if the threat cannot easily be averted and is “beyond the scope of everyday business and … threatens the operation, safety and reputation of an organization”, management attention increases further and switches crisis-response-mode to “mitigate such a critical situation as soon as possible in order to reduce to the minimum the negative effect of the crisis.” (Pedraza, 2010)

In our current crisis situation, threat is continuous (Muñoz et.al., 2019) and the predictability and influenceability of the consequences are at an unprecedented low level (Gundel, 2005). The “frequency of change” in our environment is at a permanent peak – but which organization can stand a permanent crisis-mode? And how can leaders tackle the enduring high level of uncertainty that comes with this crisis on a social and economic level?

“I flag the (ir)relevance of most leadership theories to the challenges that lie ahead, and suggest that the coronavirus crisis again shows the need for our scholarship to be more relevant, address big issues and become less introspective”, states Tourish (2020) in the introduction to the recent special issue “Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership” published in the journal Leadership.Tourish argues that mainstream leadership theories are of little help in guiding leaders through such crisis situation, because they tend to assume that leaders have sufficient information, expertise and resources to guide their followers through a crisis. Yet, as also argued in lecture 5, leaders in the current crisis need to “cope with radical uncertainty and make decisions where the margin of error is high and the consequences of failure potentially catastrophic” (p. 265). Going through several examples of populist leaders in the coronavirus crisis that are also discussed in other articles in the special issue, he comes to the conclusion that “Undaunted, populist leaders exploit uncertainty to suggest that simple solutions will work. I suggest that the responses of such leaders have been characterized by incompetent leadership, denialist leadership, panic leadership, othering leadership and authoritarian leadership”.

Tourish argues, however, that the coronavirus crisis might be an opportunity for rethinking leadership theory and practice – particularly with regard to the underlying theory of the firm which is oriented towards shareholders (rather than stakeholders) and the underlying assumption that a concentration of power and surveillance would be decisive, particularly in times of crisis.

What can be expected from leaders in such a complex situation is a very present topic in research and media these days. For example, the question around the scarcity of masks and whether preparedness was appropriate or not is prominent in public debates, questioning the leadership of governmental actors. But also hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide face a crisis of leadership, because they have to tackle the dual demands of economic survival and social responsibility. If they take the latter seriously, their burden at first sight doubles up. But if they don’t, they might stumble in the long run.

There are numerous positive examples in the context of this crisis – in both, public and business leadership – that demonstrate in an admirable way how successful leadership in a crisis is driven not only by economic motivators. In what follows, I will draw on some of these examples to develop ideas on what the future of leadership might look like, particularly with regard to the tension between economic and social imperatives.

In the corporate sphere, Microsoft is being cited by Tourish as an example where hourly workers on the companies campus have been fully paid over weeks although their workload had massively reduced due to most of the employees working from home.

New Zealand responded to the COVID 19 crisis with a multi-phase plan that was guided by the best scientific health advice available to the government. While there was a certain level of preparedness based on pre-existing influenza-plans, one of the key factors to tackle the crisis so well here was the communicative grounding (Cornelissen et.al., 2014) laid by the empathic leadership style of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern who was led by respect for science, facts and evidence (Wilson, 2020).

To my estimation, comparatively little focus these days lies on how SME’s tackle this crisis (as approached for example by Herbane, B. 2010), as well as independent professionals or even hourly workers (e.g. in private households). Some personal observations (from Austria) between March and June of this year exemplify that empathic and social acting in an economic context might serve as a valid strategy in crisis-management.

Similar to the Microsoft example, there were entrepreneurs paying their employees the delta between public pay for short-time work and the net income. Likewise, families paid their cleaning ladies or nannies although those couldn’t come for weeks. In both cases, the benefit for the employees was evident. Motivation and confidence of workers was strengthened and commitment to the employer grew in the still difficult time after the phase of social-distancing.

Some entrepreneurs engaged in remote social activities and organized meetups for non-commercial topics that helped employees last through lockdown phase such as listening to each other’s travel reports, exchanging valuable information on local shops that would do home delivery or supporting kids with home schooling and education during lockdown phase. This extra effort had to be organized and communicated at a time when the impact on the organization was just unfolding its full economic threat for a company. But ultimately, these measures helped to increase the resilience of the whole organization in a phase where uncertainty in societs was at its maximum: The demand for informal social contacts, that normally happened in breaks and chats in the office, could be remotely fulfilled in those special interest channels. Informal communication was actively kept alive between colleagues and actual worries and fears could be exchanged and discussed. Such the cohesion of the members of the organization was preserved and individual uncertainty could be lowered.

One entrepreneur – a renowned hairdresser with over 20 employees  – refused to dismiss any employee although he was prohibited to open his business by law during lockdown for almost three months. In the first four weeks after opening his shop again he almost totally caught up his revenue loss from the lockdown as he was able to put his motivated (and thankful) team to work at full capacity.

Another example from a SME: the company paid employees – that otherwise would have been sent to short-time work – to exclusively work on a project for an access control software in public spaces during COVID-19. Like many others the company had actualized opportunities that had occurred through the massive change in the environment. Only four weeks after lockdown they rolled out the product successfully to all hospitals in upper Austria. Other colleagues experienced sensemaking by the success story and started to think how to sell the product to other clients.

My suggestion would be to further investigate those numerous “small business cases” in the context of crisis management, as valuable patterns might be recognized that contribute to leadership theory on its way through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

„What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead“ (D’Auria & De Smet, 2020)

Summing up, I would emphasize, in line with the above quotation: especially during a fundamental global crisis, capacity building on an individual leader’s and organizational level is more “key” to tackle such extraordinary challenges than discussing preparedness on a procedural level. This argument also builds on the observation of Berthod et. al. (2016) – Class 4 – that procedures are less viable in a crisis representing an “extraordinary incident” (i.e. little predictability) than a “routine incident”, as well as on the literature of lecture 2 where it is argued that organizational bricolage and the building of socio-cognitive resources foster an organizations resilience to unexpected incidents (Bechky et. al., 2011). Similarly, Gundel (2005) states that in complex crises (i.e. with a mixed character such as global warming or COVID-19 pandemic), formal classifications of incidents (which are a prerequisite for standard procedures) are subject to change due to their low predictability.

Such, as a notorious optimist, I support Tourish’s idea that a new notion of leadership might arise out of the present crisis – particularly one that will blur the lines between social and economic imperatives in leadership theory and practice.

Thanks to Elke Schüßler for feedback and support.

This text is mainly inspired by:

Tourish, D. 2020. Introduction to the special issue: Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership. Leadership, 16(3): 261–272.

It further draws on:

Bechky, B. A., & Okhuysen, G. A. (2011). Expecting the unexpected? How swat officers and film crews handle surprises. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2), 239–261.

Berthod, O., Grothe-Hammer, M., Müller-Seitz, G., Raab, J., & Sydow, J. (2016). From high-reliability organizations to high-reliability networks: The dynamics of network governance in the face of emergency. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, muw050.

Cornelissen, J. P., Mantere, S., & Vaara, E. 2014. The contraction of meaning: The combined effect of communication, emotions, and materiality on sensemaking in the stockwell shooting: the contraction of meaning. Journal of Management Studies, 51(5): 699–736.

D‘Auria, De Smet, 2020. Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges, McKinsey, http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leadership-in-a-crisis-responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges

Gundel, S. 2005. Towards a new typology of crises. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 13(3): 106–115.

Herbane, B. 2010. Small business research: Time for a crisis-based view. I​nternational Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship​, 28(1): 43–64.

Muñoz, P., Kimmitt, J., Kibler, E., & Farny, S. 2019. Living on the slopes: Entrepreneurial preparedness in a context under continuous threat. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 31(5–6): 413–434.

Pedraza J., 2010. Elements for effective management of a business corporation crisis situation in P. Alvintzi et. al., Crisis Management. Nova Science Publishers pp. 1-46.

Wilson, S. 2020. Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19. Leadership, 16(3): 279–293.

“You haven’t learned anything about the plague. It will always come back”

A group of critical management scholars around my colleague Ronald Hartz from the University of Leicester has formed a virtual reading group on “The Plague – Diagnostics, Aesthetics and Politics of the Pandemic”, which I had the pleasure of joining for one session. Part of the agenda was a re-reading of Albert Camus’ 1947 book The Plague and a discussion of the 1992 film by Luis Puenzo based on the book (in addition to lots of Foucault, of course). There was a general sentiment of the film not being very good for various reasons, and particularly when seen as an adaptation of Camus’ book, but I found it interesting to watch in the light of today’s situation. Of course, Camus’ plague is fictional and written more as a metaphorical critique of fascism than as a critical analysis of pandemics, but it draws on historical evidence on previous pandemics, so many parallels to today’s situation became evident.

One thing I found striking was to see the sudden shift from normal, joyful social life to the lockdown situation, illustrating how things that we usually take for granted can suddenly become risky and forbidden. It seems absurd – but this does not mean it is not real, nor that it can not last. As Camus’, an absurdist philosopher, famously wrote in The Plague, a quote that also appears (in altered form) in the film: “When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though the war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves”. The same can be said about the pandemic. “It” – the pandemic, a war, fascism – “always catches us off-guard”.

The film also captures well the different realities of people – some still hustling and bustling in bars and restaurants, others directly faced by horrible disease and death. Through frequent references to the smell and sound of death in the film, especially the haunting scream of the dying choral boy, we get a sense of what it might be like for those working “on the frontline” of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of course for the families directly affected, the fates and suffering of which is buried behind death statistics and largely invisible to us. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of the book and film (played by William Hunt), desperately revolts against the transformation of human existence into bureaucratic entries by asking an official overseeing a quarantine camp to write a woman’s full name instead of just giving her a number. Yet, especially in highly affected areas, it is an inevitability to “administer” death through mass graves and statistics. Such depersonalization is a core ambivalence of bureaucratic systems (see lecture 3).

It is maybe not surprising that Camus picked the plague as the “pandemic of choice” to provide a critique of fascism. As Alan McKinlay argues in his article “Foucault, Plague, Defoe”, Foucault sees the plague a “a vital conceptual and historical bridge between the classical and modern ages; between different institutions; and between ‘disciplinary’ power and ‘biopower’” (p. 168). While leprosy could be dealt with by excluding infected individuals, the plague hit the heart of entire populations, requiring elaborate systems of management and regulation, discipline and surveillance. For Foucault who has extensively studied and written about the emergence of modern health and punishment institutions (e.g. 1973; 1977), the plague constituted “a moment at which all existing conceptions of the body, of family and social life, of the divine, and the nature and purpose of political authority were thrown into total confusion” (p. 168). The modern clinic and public health policies can be seen as disciplinary spaces as much as the modern prison.

Animals, a source of pandemics throughout history, appear only in the beginning of the film where we see sick rats hushing through buildings. But these images remind us that pandemics result from a mix of inhumane living conditions and an unhealthy relationship between humans and animals – a mix not only evidenced by reports about the Wuhan animal markets, but also by the insights into meat factories in the heart of Europe where people – like animals – are herded up and treated like disposable cattle.

In the film, we see people being pulled out of houses and put into quarantine by force. What is meant as a metaphor for the treatment of people deported to concentration camps during the holocaust by Camus, we have seen similar pictures from Wuhan in January and February 2020. Many of us perceived these as surreal or science-fiction-like. But, as The Plague reminds us, these practices are not only real today, but have also been real in the past. We see auxiliary hospitals being erected; we see face masks, a struggle to make sense of death counts and statistics and attempts at revealing the outbreak and criticisms of autopsies. Despite centuries of progress in medical science, we are left to archaic methods of confronting the virus, something epidemiologists today frequently stress in the public debate. These methods are not uncontested, because they reassert the power of the State which is necessary to confront complex crises, but can also easily be abused by populist and authoritarian leaders. When a family whose daughter has died from the plague in the film is being held in quarantine for months without any justification, Rieux, in the scene mentioned before, blames the official to “treat everyone like a suspect“, indicating that the measures he himself supported from a medical standpoint were being abused by people that “think they are God” and end up “locking up the whole city”. I would argue that the thin line between an assertive state necessary to handle the pandemic and save people’s life and authoritarianism is a key struggle for national leaders – particularly in Europe where the history of fascism is still very near. “There is a bit of the plague in all of us” is a repeated message – and one that I would say many political leaders in Europe have taken quite seriously.

In both the book and the movie, the confrontation between the scientist and humanist Dr. Rieux and the priest Father Paneloux is central. While the priest refers to the plague as the tribunal for people’s sins, Rieux emphasizes the Sisyphean task of trying to safe life by life, driven only by humanist values and not a belief in a greater order. Here Camus’ philosophy of absurdity, in which he asks us to think of Sisyphos as a happy person, comes to life through Dr. Rieux who recognizes and accepts the absurdity of life and inevitability of death, yet revolts against it by trying to live the best life possible, which is where – according to Camus – freedom can be found. But what is the role of religion in the current Covid-19 crisis? Organized religion was shut down early in the pandemic and excluded from its usual role in accompanying death as an infection control measure. It was and still is in the news as a site of superspreading events. In this way, organized religion has been rather silent – whereas it provides the soundscape of The Plague movie, which has psalms, sung by an innocent boy, as its main soundtrack. Religion also surfaces in broader frames and discourses: is the disease a punishment for our exploitation of nature (religious frame), or a natural evolution that happens from time to time (evolutionary frame)? Church groups have played an important role on the community level, providing services like food delivery for the elderly in many places. Without faith, journalist Martine Rambert (a character created just for the movie) argues, the world is a desolate place: “there is only the present, no memory, no hope” – but memory and hope – whether from a religious or humanistic angle – is needed to move forward in times of crisis. And since modern society with its focus on self-optimization has little solace to offer when it comes to death and disease, religion might also play an important role on an individual level as people struggle to accept that death is a normal part of life, of which for instance the suffering of Jesus on the cross is a constant reminder. The conflict between Rieux and Paneloux is somewhat resolved as Paneloux gets involved in caring for the sick and it becomes clear that both strive for the same: empathy and solidarity.

So, as a distraction of or complement to your coursework, I can recommend that you read and watch “The Plague”. While not the greatest movie ever made, it adds a layer of sound and visuals to the more sterile images we get from the news. The book has seen record sales during the coronavirus crisis already. If you want more, you can also look at Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, a chronicle of the 17th century London plague outbreak written in a unique style that veers between historical fact and fiction to express the confusion and extraordinary events societies were put into because of the plague outbreak.

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.