When Greg Reisch added emergency services to his role as associate director of facilities management for Harvard Business School's Executive Education Programs, it was with a clear understanding of what that would entail—perhaps an imminent snowstorm or a participant illness or injury, along with general emergency preparedness. But that was in January of 2020. Just a few short months later he was working with program directors to cancel, reschedule, and postpone all current and future programs, and on plans for maintaining facilities. It would be an entire year before his meetings had the welcome addition of a new agenda item: return to in-person programs.

In June, Executive Education welcomed its first in-person program in 15 months, a team from Newton Wellesley Hospital (NWH) composed of physicians, nurses, and hospital administrators. The group reached out early in 2021 about completing the second part of their two-module program, the first of which was in January of 2020. Initial conversations centered around a virtual program, but as vaccinations rolled out and restrictions were being lifted, there was a glimmer of possibility for an in-person version.

The group of 20 were vaccinated, local, highly informed, and familiar with campus and the program. Could a two-night program, just about 48 hours in total duration, actually come together? When Portfolio Director Casey Otis reached out to the core faculty team to investigate, it was a quick conversation. Dean Srikant Datar, Tarun Khanna, and Rob Huckman were all on board.

With the all-clear signal given, teams across Executive Education, Dining and Custodial Services, and Operations sprang into action. Details that had not been considered, much less coordinated, in more than a year were once again on everyone's radar. "All throughout this time, anyone I ever talked to was asking, 'When are you coming back?' and the answer was always that we weren't sure," said Reisch. "When we finally said that this program was set for mid-June, everyone was really excited. I think we're all looking for that sense of normalcy, and we're getting there."

For Otis and Senior Program Manager Anthony Corsino, exercising the muscle memory of in-person program details was welcome and invigorating. While many details were new, there was also a comforting familiarity. "There was so much planning and coordination—the biggest achievement was how routine it felt once we got back into it," said Corsino. "Yes, people were wearing masks and the snacks were individually packaged, but the broad strokes were remarkably similar to what we normally do."

Throughout the pandemic, Reisch was a part of regular Local Emergency Management Team and re-entry team meetings, which had smaller spin-off groups that conferred with University emergency management and Harvard University Health Services. The policies and procedures that were determined and rolled out for the HBS MBA Program acted in many ways as blueprints for Executive Education.

From COVID testing protocols to quarantine regulations and vaccine requirements, the team was able to tweak details and documents for the NWH program and those in the near future. "We were able to utilize so many of the protocols for MBA students, it was an enormous help," said Reisch. "We just needed to fine tune them and learn the ins and outs and details. There are so many things we share even though we're very different operationally."

The living groups in Tata were slightly reconfigured—the eight-person capacity in each was reduced by half to ensure that the areas dedicated to group work and case discussions aligned with guidelines. Reisch, recalled Corsino, pulled out a measuring tape to determine the correct person-to-table ratio.

June's temperate weather also allowed for greater flexibility with dining and receptions—a barbecue in the Schwartz Pavilion one night, Bento boxes another, with outdoor seating areas nearby for group work, lunches, and snacks.

In classrooms, participants were spaced out according to distancing requirements. Much like in the hybrid classrooms, chairs were tethered together to enforce spacing, and signs indicated which seats were available. The distancing provided a challenge for the back-and-forth engagement essential to case method pedagogy, but the enthusiasm from participants and faculty made up for any awkwardness, said Otis.

"It takes the right kind of teacher, and the right participants, to create energy in a space with so few people," said Otis. "The participants were so enthusiastic about being with us, and the faculty were so enthusiastic about teaching. Once people were warmed up, it was really neat to feel the energy be so much like our pre-COVID programs. Everyone really appreciated being together."

As the team gears up for their next programs in the fall, the lessons learned from this pilot are top of mind. For Corsino, that means being more comfortable with the unknown. "We like to have a lot of control over the details in our program delivery team," he laughs. "But restrictions could loosen or tighten at any moment. We have a baseline of what to expect, but the details might change days before. We just have to be more comfortable knowing that we might not have an answer until much later than we normally would—and later than we would like. It's an evolving situation and we have to respond in an agile way."

Reisch is confident that the daunting number of meetings, details, and documentation will decrease as familiarity and routine increase with each completed program. The key phrase he relies upon, he says, is "As of today." He credits the success of the NWH program, and of those in the future, to the resiliency and collaboration of colleagues across campus. "It's not only people wanting us to come back, it's asking how they can help and what we need—just as they did before. This situation shone a light on that even more. We're in need of extra guidance, and everybody is 100% stepping up. We wouldn't have expected any less and we haven't gotten anything less."

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business School Newsroom

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Shona Simkin

About the Author

Shona Simkin is the Assistant Director, Marketing and Communications, for Harvard Business School