Agility, Communication, Participation: What national COVID-19 responses can tell us about organisational success

Tuesday November 17 2020

In the face of a crisis, if the national response is strong, supportive and successful, the chances are that the organizations under its governance will similarly thrive by learning from it. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG


First reported in China in December 2019, the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has since forced the closure of multiple businesses and schools -- from primary to higher education across the world. Watching it’s rapid transmission across borders globally, we started to prepare our institution, the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), to respond to it in anticipation of a potential case in Rwanda. UGHE is a global health sciences university and it’s Butaro campus, positioned in the rural north of Rwanda, hosts residents from all continents.

In the face of a crisis, organizations from every sector can learn a lot from the bigger picture. If the national response is strong, supportive and successful, the chances are that the organizations under its governance will similarly thrive by learning from it. What COVID-19 has proved at national level, is that the foundation of success or failure lies in three pillars; communication, agility and participation, and that organizational strength or weakness is similarly determined by these factors. 

I will take an example of my country Rwanda where the Government of Rwanda has implemented a participatory, evidence-based response to COVID-19. I found it to be a ready-made model for organizations to mimic, albeit on a scaled-back basis. Two months before the first case was diagnosed in Rwanda, the screening of all inbound passengers landing at the airport was implemented with isolation and testing of all travellers suspected to be infected by COVID-19, and systematic testing of their contacts. After the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the country, Rwanda’s response was rapid. Within two days, the government had directed the physical closure of all churches, public facilities, academic institutions and prevention of domestic travels. At UGHE we immediately sought and obtained the permission to keep the university open, to maintain our work in a campus locked from the world. A week later Rwanda’s land and air borders were closed.

The ability to physically shut down at the UGHE, and do this quickly, ensured near-continuity in every area of university output. On Butaro Campus, students, staff and faculty live and work in close proximity. Campus’ can be volatile places for disease transmission but, adequately prepared, they can also be quickly-controlled environments, a self-sufficient bubble able to rapidly close their gates to outside infection and keep those within safe and sanitized. 

Strategic communication is the binding factor within this. Just as the misuse, or lack of communication from some governments globally has compromised the safety of their populations and divided societies, so lack of communication from organizational leadership can have devastating effects on its productivity, and serve as an injustice to the potential of their workforce, and, in the case of academic institutions, the students they serve. Throughout this crisis, Rwanda’s high level communication has been clear and frequent which, in turn, fed into organizational ability to follow a common directive. In an effort to stem the panic-inducing fake news that streams, uncensored, through social media and suspect news sources, UGHE decided only to share information through leadership, with regular updates that were transparent, backed by sciences and facts, and reactive to the rapidly evolving situation - both internally and externally. 

All campus residents were given the option to stay, or join their families. All staff and faculty, as well as the students and their parents, including those from outside Rwanda, were provided with ample and accurate updates on the status of pandemic, to allow them to make informed decisions. Human Resources (HR) and Student Services supported staff and students to find and facilitate travel options back. 97% decided to stay in Rwanda, and those on campus continue to be protected by the limited movement through its gates, except the delivery of medicine, and food, weekly physical and mental check-ups by a UGHE trained nurse, the allocation of separate rooms to all residents and an intensified cleaning and dining rotation.


What has slowed some organizations down is an inability to think beyond the immediate roles prescribed for their employees. Agility in every sector is key to evolve, and the pandemic has demonstrated how critical this really is. HR departments should concentrate on equipping themselves to respond to new needs generated by the lockdown, including emotional support for employees in home isolation -- as with Student Services for student wellbeing -- as well as making available confidential professional psychological support to all in need. Finance teams can similarly see this pandemic as an opportunity to understand the need for investment in certain areas, reassign budget, and build contingency for crises of this kind into long-term investment plans for the future. UGHEs procurement teams have quickly, and efficiently cancelled the sourcing provisions for events, photographers or office supplies at the lowest cost, and streamlined their invoice process to e-procurement for greater safety and efficiency. Our communications team whose role involves the promotion of speaking engagements, workshops and events, now focuses on finding virtual ways to keep our organization front of mind, making the most of today’s innovations in tech and, consequently, the scale of potential exposure. UGHE has, in this way, made itself agile, and therefore effective.

UGHE also found opportunities for role innovation with its drivers who, no longer facilitating travel to and from a closed campus, directly supported Rwanda’s national COVID-19 response by transporting patients and health workers safely between their homes and health facilities.  Country-wide lockdown and its restriction on movement made it difficult for patients in need of regular cancer treatment to travel to a facility providing it. Now, mobilized by UGHE’s Logistics team, our drivers have been reallocated to serve our equity-driven mission of improving access to quality health service delivery for the vulnerable. 
Organizational agility, however, cannot be fully achieved without the appropriate infrastructure to provide professional capabilities to work from home or, for the residents on campus, from their room. You cannot lockdown your office or classrooms and expect work and learning to continue as normal, unless you ensure all staff, students, and faculty have the right equipment and sufficient internet access at their homes or room to do so. The right infrastructure has, in some cases, increased productivity. Students, usually quiet in the classroom environment, found new confidence in webinar-style interaction, and assessments (which pose a worldwide question mark for academic institutions everywhere) have, at UGHE, continued through lockdown browser software ensuring legitimacy of final grades.

The importance of participation has been exposed and invigorated during the pandemic; after all, the global COVID-19 response can only be as strong as its weakest country. At national level, effective responses are coordinated through a multi-sectoral approach, where governments aligning their health sector with that of their transport, finance, education, and employment sectors with a common approach that creates synergy and helps, not hinders another. If one sector is ineffective, it negatively impacts the entire national response. (This also exists within sectors, where the pandemic has furthered interprofessional collaboration between doctors, nurses, physicians and researchers to name a few.) Academic organizations, like UGHE, rely on a tightly run operation composed of multiple moving parts working in unison. Action is centralized; directed by a competent task force built in direct response to the pandemic; at UGHE, it is the Emergency Response Committee which benefits from the diversity in representation from the students, faculty, administrative and finance staff and leadership both on and off campus. This multi-department team is well equipped to accurately represent the individual needs, and concerns of all members of UGHE. 

A participatory approach also means that you must consult those who will have to implement the decisions and, if you expect directives to be followed, you must principally support people to do so. In Rwanda, the government understood that to enforce lockdown, they must make sure that those who relied on daily wages were delivered food provision to sustain their families, to make sure that vulnerable will be able to stay home and contribute to cutting the chain of transmission. As a concrete example of solidarity and its commitment to caring for the vulnerable, UGHE contributed to this initiative to feed those in need in its district, 

Just as successful national responses are tailored and inclusive of everyone, including the most vulnerable in society, so organizational responses must be sensitive to different employee circumstances. You cannot expect all to behave the same way in unprecedented times, and therefore a tailored approach to employee support is needed. Those with children are balancing more formal work with new responsibilities of homeschooling and full time child care. Those with existing mental health issues, may find this time of isolation and uncertainty more challenging than other employees, and therefore anonymous, remote counselling options and confidential channels of communication must be available without them needing to request it, or else look for support networks like these from outside the organization.

Beyond the here and now, this pandemic will serve to spark a revaluation of how organizations in every setting can evolve to strengthen internal efficiency, through an equitable, human-centered approach that can benefit everyone. Universities should see opportunity in increased student and faculty familiarity with online learning systems. It serves the pandemic response but also provides students with permanent virtual access to worldwide experts in specific fields of health that will complement face-to-face teaching. Opportunity also lies in how organizations have come to better understand the needs of their clients and their employees during this time of uncertainty; HR teams have been alerted to the varied challenges and specific needs of those they serve, and prompted the development of tailored, long-term support channels if they were not there before.

Operationally, this time has brought a host of new challenges to organizations globally, particularly for those with the added responsibility of students in the education system. UGHE predicted the challenges of global school closures, and met them with preparation to respond according to the guidelines. It continued to serve our clients -- our students and employees -- by rapidly absorbing and applying the learnings from the successes and failures of the global governing response to the pandemic, and thinking innovatively about organizational structure. Most critically, it planned equitable solutions for immediate outcomes and for the future, helping our institution to thrive in times of global uncertainty.