Managing a department in the time of COVID-19

“What is happening with teaching in the fall?” asked my staff, in our on-line Teams/Zoom/Skype (delete as appropriate) meeting. “I’m not at the point where it is helpful to discuss next year’s teaching allocation,” I reply, adding that, at this stage, my focus is on staying home and saving lives. “It is, I’m afraid, just too early to talk about it.”

“But it’s May,” they protest. “Surely you must know what is going to happen in September.” I stonewall. “OK then, if you can’t tell us what we will be teaching, can you tell us how we will be teaching?” But I’m sticking to the message. “Look, I just don’t want any distractions at this point. If I tell you what you are teaching, you will only spend time preparing, and it may all be in vain. I need everyone to focus on staying home, protecting the NHS and saving lives.”

“But you must have a teaching strategy,” they persist. “Can you at least confirm that?” I am unmoved. “Listen,” I say, “discussions take place on a regular basis between the Dean and me about the options, but discussing them is a distraction and we are not yet ready to disclose them to you.” “You are treating us like children,” they complain. “Not at all,” I reply. “Next question.”"

They try to goad me. “You don’t have the authority to plan teaching. You are just an interim Department Head and waiting for the Dean to step in.” But I’m ready for this. “I have complete authority over the teaching allocation. I am fully empowered to oversee this, working on the plans set down by the Dean. Rest assured; we will at all times be guided by the science.”

By now, they are staring at me sceptically: “You don’t actually have a plan for teaching at all, do you? We bet you haven’t even got any students to teach.” “There is”, I assure them, “no threat to student recuirtment. We have even appointed a recuitment tsar to take personal charge of recuitment.” I consider explaining my five-pillar strategy to secure full classrooms but this will only lead to more questions.

For questions on money and paying salaries, I say. “Well look, the money does exist and there is a plan for its payment. I am being guided by the science on this and our committee of finance experts. Salaries have recently been paid. At this stage, I am focused on spending money only where it needs to be spent. We are not yet ready to speculate on future pay increases as this might encourage you to spend money you don’t have”.

There are those who argue that my approach is somewhat infantilising and that refusing to discuss important department decisions before they are taken is treating my staff like children. I do recognise this argument but, frankly, in these challenging times, no good will come of pressing me for answers I don’t have.

All you need to know is that I am focused on the challenge in front of me and that I will, at all times, be guided by the science.

I hope you realise this is just a bit of fun; I adapted the article “After coronavirus, my new government-inspired ‘non-information strategy’” by Robert Shrimsley in the Finanical Times on the 24th April 2020.

Be safe, be well my friends.

Stephen Disney
Stephen Disney

My research interests involve the application of control theory and statistical techniques to operations management and supply chain scenarios to investigate their dynamic, stochastic, and economic performance.