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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Listen up, leaders: what you need to know about reopening responsibly

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Avi Goldfarb, Anita M. McGahan, Alex Yeo

While the threat of COVID-19 hasn’t dissipated, the number of cases has dropped in certain regions of the world, and businesses are looking to reopen. The next challenge will be centered on how to get back to business responsibly.

In the latest Managing Uncertainty webinar, professor Brian Golden was joined by Rotman researchers specializing in AI and healthcare management and a Rotman grad with first-hand experience leading an organization during the pandemic.

This panel for this webinar — Reopening Responsibly: The Merging of Management and Public Health — was armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Avi Goldfarb, who is the Rotman chair in artificial intelligence and professor in the marketing area, specializes in the economics of technology. Recently, Goldfarb and fellow professors Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Mara Lederman presented their ideas on how CEOs can safely reopen their workplaces in a piece for MIT Technology Review.

Anita McGahan is a university professor at the University of Toronto and a professor in the strategic management area at Rotman. Throughout the pandemic, she’s written and spoken widely about the need for global coordination and innovative solutions.

Alex Yeo (MBA '14) is president of Canadian retail at The North West Company. In recent months, he’s been challenged with delivering on the organization’s promise to get goods to the communities they serve while protecting his workforce.

Here are their thoughts on how to reopen responsibly.

Successfully reopening will require always on and information-based solutions

Though we have little control over when this crisis will end, Goldfarb encourages managers to think about what they do have influence over.

“On a country-level scale, most managers can’t tackle the health problem, but it has created a management problem, and we can do something about that,” he says.

As they plan to welcome employees back to workplace, Goldfarb suggests organizations think about two sets of solutions: always on solutions (which include rules about always wearing masks and always maintaining a distance in the workplace) and information-based solutions (which include strategies around testing and collecting information to decide which members of their workforce can go back to work).

“Managers are recognizing that it’s up to them. They need to think through decisions on who do we let back into work, what type of ‘always on’ solutions to have and which information-based systems to invest it.”

Read more about Goldfarb’s advice on reopening in his recent MIT Technology Review piece →

Successfully reopening will require a delicate balance of economic and health priorities

Balancing public health with economic priorities will become everyone’s responsibility. In the short term, McGahan says that citizens can do their part by supporting businesses in following public health recommendations (distancing, handwashing and wearing facemasks).

In the midterm, governments need to develop better conditions for society’s most vulnerable, including essential workers and lower-income families, who might be most at risk of getting sick because of the nature of their work and overcrowding.

In the longer term, she hopes to see innovative solutions in solving some of the country’s biggest problems, especially in healthcare (enhancing the system’s testing technology and capacity) and restoring stability to financial systems.

McGahan also wants to see stronger government intervention in contact tracing efforts. McGahan points out that governments are in a better position than businesses to pull off such a complex undertaking and have the authority to compel adherence.

“Otherwise, contact tracing gives businesses too much information over who you interact with,” she says.

“My view is that businesses should be focusing on safety,” she says. “Actually implementing contact tracing should be a governmental responsibility.”

Read more about Professor McGahan’s ideas on contact tracing →

Practical approaches to staying open for business

What is the secret to staying open and productive during this time? For Yeo and The North West Company, operating a business during the pandemic has involved jumping into crisis-planning mode. As a leading retailer serving rural communities, including those in northern and western Canada, North West was under immense pressure to limit disruption to their customers.

“We had to structure the uncertainty and put boundaries around it,” says Yeo, “By looking at those variables, it allowed us to drive out the actions for what we needed to do.”

When the pandemic struck, the team immediately began planning out contingencies should an outbreak occur in one of their stores or in their local community. The organization quickly introduced an online store, curbside pickup and a centralized fill capacity so that they could adapt and redistribute supplies should one of their stores need to shut down abruptly.

Yeo advises all businesses looking to reopen or launch during this time to reach out to others — other organizations, business associations and public health experts — for advice.

“To anyone looking to open an office-based business, understand your culture, your working process and environment. Then, look at similar companies and reach out to your contacts and understand what they’re doing,” he says. “You’ll come out with ideas to address your gaps.”

Watch a recording of the webinar:

Avi Goldfarb is the Rotman chair in artificial intelligence and healthcare and a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management. His research focuses on the economics of technology.
Anita McGahan is a university professor at the University of Toronto, and is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management, where she holds the George E. Connell chair in organizations & society.
Alex Yeo (MBA '14) is president of Canadian retail at The North West Company.