Q: How has the pandemic reshaped insights into your area of expertise?
Forget about the slow build of trends, says Evan Polman, associate professor of marketing. There seems to be a new one every month—baking bread, buying puzzles, contactless delivery—and so far, it hasn’t let up. The very definition of a trend is a general direction in which something changes, and it’s often gradual. Not anymore, though.
“Things that used to take years to become a trend are taking two months,” Polman says.
Two trends in particular accelerated so much recently that it’s likely they will become permanent: e-commerce and digital banking. Both have been around for a while, but the pandemic pulled in outliers and technophobes.
“COVID has forced people to change their habits; they’ve had to learn new things,” Polman says. “Now they try online banking or shopping and realize it’s not so bad. So they’ll continue with it.”
If that’s part of a much talked-about “new normal,” many other shifts such as avoiding travel or movie theaters are probably just temporary, Polman says. He calls himself a “gentle critic” of the concept of a new normal.
“I don’t think there will be a dramatic change,” he says. “I think we will go back to traditional ways of how we consume but in the meantime, we’re restricted.”
What’s fascinating, Polman says, are the ways businesses and consumers adapt in order to cope.
“It shows how much ingenuity people have,” he says.
Change is hard for anyone. In auditing, a current need to break from tried-and-true methods because of the pandemic might be particularly difficult.
That could inspire a nudge toward newer methods that some firms have been reluctant to try, says Emily Griffith, associate professor of accounting and information systems.
The pandemic has stifled auditors’ ability to build relationships and meet clients in person, which coincides with a push by the industry to increase the use of data, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. New approaches would rely more on publicly available data and complex fiscal analyses instead of a company’s records and receipts to verify its finances.
“Typically auditors have worked backward, in an evidence-gathering way,” Griffith says. “But there are many ways to do an audit.”
With many offices closed and no visitors allowed, the profession has had to adapt.
“External auditors spend a lot of time talking to personnel gathering records and other evidence,” Griffith says. “If you’re not on site and your client isn’t on site, they can’t give you documents you’re asking for.”
Auditors have stuck with traditional methods for a reason, Griffith says. Auditing is heavily regulated and many audits are inspected by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB).
“If you’ve been inspected and everything was OK with the PCAOB, you have a system that works and want to keep doing it that way,” she says. “Maybe a silver lining of the horrible pandemic is that more auditors might be in favor of trying some new approaches.”
Understanding how to lead has always been important, but the pandemic has made clear the importance of another skill: understanding how to lead in a crisis.
That has been a focus since March for Alex Stajkovic, associate professor of management and human resources and the M. Keith Weikel Distinguished Chair in Leadership.
“People want to know how we get out of this,” Stajkovic says. “When we learn who is effective in a crisis, the better we can handle the crisis.”
Stajkovic found that women governors shone during the first months of the pandemic. Using public data and controlling for other factors, Stajkovic and co-author Kayla Sergent (PhD ’18) discovered that the states in the U.S. with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than those led by men. The research credits two factors for successful leadership of women governors: empathy and confidence, particularly together. By analyzing governors’ words during press briefings, Stajkovic and Sergent found that messages of empathy and confidence—such as “we can get through this”—coincided with voluntary compliance with stay-at-home orders.
What’s important to note, Stajkovic says, is that confidence and empathy are learned or socialized traits, not genetic ones. That means organizations can create training programs to develop them in any leader and can establish a culture of inclusion where those traits are valued.
“Confidence with empathy can contribute to a brighter future,” he says. “Leaders don’t have all the answers, but they can inspire us so that as a society, we can get out of a crisis.”