Before You Reopen Your Business, Check Out What Just Happened at Harvard

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a small clock tower in front of a building: Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 22, 2020.

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Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 22, 2020.

Why make mistakes, when you can learn from others’ examples for free?


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This is one of my favorite kinds of stories to write: One where small businesses in any industry can watch a big brand struggle through problems that almost everyone faces, and learn from their mistakes for free.

Today’s big brand “lab rat,” so to speak: Harvard University.

There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but the reopening plan at Harvard was bound to attract special attention.

That’s exactly what happened when Harvard announced its plans this week to allow fewer than 40 percent of its undergraduate students (but including all freshmen) to return to campus–while continuing to charge full tuition.

All Harvard classes will be taught online, regardless of whether students are on campus or not. The plan means Harvard is reacting more strictly than many other similar institutions.

Competitive examples:

Stanford plans to allow freshmen and sophomores on campus, and Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology plan for larger percentages of their students to return. Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania have announced they plan largely to reopen for students. Separately, Harvard Business School announced that all of its graduate students will be allowed on campus.

All sports in the Ivy League are canceled as well–although that’s a decision beyond Harvard alone, of course.

In any event, almost nobody seems satisfied with the outcome.

Upperclass students voiced “indignation, disappointment, and ‘heartbreak'” in online forums, according to Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, which has continued publishing.

Even President Trump chimed in: “I think it’s ridiculous,” the president said after Harvard’s announcement. “I think it’s an easy way out, and I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves, if you want to know the truth.”

Now, I didn’t attend Harvard University, and frankly I don’t often ask or notice where people went to college. I suspect that, as a business owner, you might feel the same way.

But there are some interesting lessons to take away from Harvard’s decision and the reaction to it–especially if you’re considering whether, and how, to try to return your business “to normal.”

1. Take advantage of the luxury of moving slowly.

In most cases, your business has a big advantage over Harvard and other educational institutions. They have to make decisions right now. For the most part, you probably have more of an opportunity to be flexible with your timing.

Perhaps the most important thing to do with that time: Watch and learn from the experiences of competitors and others–frankly, much like we’re doing with Harvard right now. Let them make whatever costly mistakes, and take the lessons for free.

2. Focus on what makes you different.

I was struck by something that one of Harvard’s deans said in explaining why Harvard is taking a more restrictive approach than many of its peers, citing the fact that Harvard is in an urban area and has a “porous” campus, with worldwide visitors and international students, according to The Crimson.

Obviously, I don’t know your business, but I guarantee that there’s no one-size-fits-all plan that will work. Even the question of whether you have to have people return to the office at all is something that will prompt a unique answer.

3. Be as flexible as you can.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, employees were asking for flexibility more than any other single perk or working condition.

Granted, some businesses simply don’t lend themselves to this factor as much as others do. But the more you can reexamine rules and requirements and let employees opt out of those that might be less important, the better.

4. Reexamine the value you offer.

Here’s the enormous issue with Harvard’s decision that I don’t think the university has grappled with sufficiently: Undergraduate tuition at Harvard is $49,653 per year, and it remains unchanged even with a very changed college experience.

Does that even make sense? For our purposes, I’d use it as a jumping off point to reexamine the value that you’re providing to customers, and how that changes in an adapted environment.

Would your long-term customer relationships gain something by offering some kinds of discounts? Or would doing so negatively impact your brand?

Again, you know your business. But watch and see what happens to Harvard, and learn from its successes and mistakes.

It’s a lot less costly than doing so yourself.

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