One of the benefits of a classical education is you get introduced at an early age to the best that has been written. As a teenager, Ovid’s Metamorphoses were a favourite: fantastical tales of avenging gods and human desire in graphic detail.
I’ve returned to his poetry during lockdown, but it has also made me think about the sudden transformation of our college operation. As someone who has always been strongly against a working-from-home culture, I have found myself rethinking that antipathy and going through a form of Covid-19 metamorphosis, asking what changes we should keep as things return to some form of normality, and what changes are likely to continue in the longer term.
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The coronavirus crisis will have profound implications for us all. It has exposed the precariousness of so many businesses and, despite continued government funding, the real fragility of colleges with even tiny non-government income streams. It has also shown that our just-in-time culture is just not good enough. For me, it has also shown the real limits of remote working, though admittedly shown some potential benefits, too.
Jim Collins, author of bestseller Good to Great, wrote a follow-up, Great by Choice, that identified companies that sailed through real crises. Most interesting was the way these companies went against well-established business rules. In particular, they exhibited real paranoia about their competitors and they had very deep pockets (high levels of cash and spare capacity).
I suspect our college is not alone in being found wanting in its risk management around Covid-19. We had clear plans for the loss of any campus, loss of students, even attack by computer virus, but not a biological one. We have been a successful college BC (before Covid-19) but there will be huge opportunities AC (after Covid-19) and no guarantee that previous success will continue. This discontinuity means the most paranoid might fare best; those that worry about things we hadn’t imagined could happen before.
Typical financial-management thinking promotes the need to “sweat your assets”. Holding high cash reserves is often frowned upon because shareholders expect you to give it to them as dividends or invest it in ways that earn more than bank interest.
Private training providers often suck cash out of the business as soon as they can. This has been good business sense up to now, but it has left many highly exposed in this crisis. The same logic applies in public services. Why would you want 30,000 ventilators when you generally only need 5,000? Why would you allow public service bodies like colleges to be funded to a level where they could build up big reserves?
I suspect we will see a move towards just-in-case and away from just-in-time. Governments will be forgiven for scarcities this time, but not again. Colleges will need to hold much bigger cash reserves and have much stronger IT infrastructures to support students and staff away from campuses. We will be expected to cope with disruption to the standard year or cope with 20 per cent staff absence.
We may need much larger equipment stocks so that students can do more at home. We may need to test students far more often in case of exam disruption. Just as the financial crisis exposed the banks as being under-capitalised, Covid-19 has shown colleges are under-capitalised, under-stocked and under-technologised. This will be hard and government may need to think how best to incentivise these new ideal behaviours. Germany’s insurance-based health system incentivises the creation of intensive care facilities because it wants people suffering badly (and expensively) to be cured very quickly, for example.
As a result of the past few weeks, I am shifting my view on home-working, but it has also exposed the very real benefits of physical proximity in well-ordered offices. Working close together has real benefits. It may not always be super-productive but it helps with wellbeing and fast responses. Working from home is damaging the effectiveness of central government and even damaging the quality and listenability of your favourite radio programme.
Having said that, virtual meetings are often shorter and sharper, though they seem to work best with people you know properly already. There is clearly a better balance that can be struck but I think we are in for a period when people will rediscover their love for office life.
If I am really honest, I thought before that work from home could disguise inefficiency and my view has changed significantly. If anything, I now think that a lack of productivity is more easily disguised under the camouflage of office work. One outcome, therefore, may well be more home working but far fewer staff being employed. The fact that some colleges were looking initially to furlough 30 per cent of staff might be a hint of what’s to come. It is far easier to lose staff if they and their results are less visible.
Ovid finishes Metamorphoses by saying that, after the upheavals caused by Caesar, Jove foresaw a prosperous reign for Augustus. Let’s hope that colleges can keep the gods on our side and transform into a similar period of success. Augustus is the perfect role model, too: early paranoia followed by the building of deep reserves and world-class infrastructure which held good for two centuries.
Ian Pryce is principal and CEO of the Bedford College Group