For UChicago scholars, research and home lives intersect amid pandemic

Working remotely, Chicago Booth faculty balance scholarship and child care duties

Research insights that used to arise from chance meetings with colleagues in the hallway now get hashed out over late-night texting sessions. Sensitive client meetings take place over Zoom. Like many, faculty at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business are juggling commitments to research and professional practice while supervising their children’s schoolwork.

It’s a hectic time but also a productive one, as the effects of COVID-19 inspire faculty to explore historic changes in the way people work and live.

During the 2008-09 financial crisis and recession, Assoc. Prof. João Granja was still a PhD student at Chicago Booth. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded this spring, he immediately recognized the relevance of his research on small-business financing. The Paycheck Protection Program was designed to support small businesses with loans through the sudden economic downturn, but Granja predicted problems right away.

“I knew that some banks might not be as prepared to deploy a program of this magnitude in a short amount of time, and that made me very worried about inequities,” he said.

Working with a research team that included Booth colleagues Constantine Yannelis and Eric Zwick—as well as Arizona State University’s Christos Makridis—Granja accessed Small Business Administration records through a public records request. “We had to be as quick as possible in working with the data and coming up with a credible analysis to inform the public debate,” he said.

During the day, Granja and his wife, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, took turns supervising their 5-year-old’s online classes and caring for their 3-year-old. Late at night, the research team held group calls to review their findings. In a recent working paper, they argue that while some areas have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, businesses in less-affected areas were actually more likely to get PPP loans. Their work has helped to shape conversations about the next round of stimulus funds.

Granja said the long hours were worth it: “I’ve never had any other paper that had the sort of impact that I believe this one had.”

Meanwhile, Clinical Asst. Prof. Lindsey Lyman started a major consulting project during the stay-at-home orders, working with a consumer packaged goods company to relaunch its food-innovation incubator. It’s the first time she’s had to coach a client without being able to meet face-to-face.

With no feasible alternative to remote work, she had to reinvent her methods. “Consulting is as much, if not more, about human factors and understanding people and building trust as it is the analytical exercise of getting to the right answer,” said Lyman, who runs her own innovation consultancy, Growth Studios, in addition to teaching at Chicago Booth. To recreate as much of the in-person experience as she can, she holds frequent, one-on-one virtual meetings with each person involved in the project. Zoom breakout rooms work well for group problem-solving sessions, and she uses collaborative whiteboard software to capture ideas.

While reassuring clients who are anxious about corporate and global change, Lyman and her husband also are caring for three children—2, 6 and 8 years old. She’s converted her dining room to a temporary schoolhouse and decorated it to resemble a first-grade classroom, with an alphabet and numbers, a poster with a daily schedule, and her kids’ artwork on the walls. Late-night work sessions have also become her reality. “The whole support network for families has been ripped out from underneath us,” she said.

In her consulting practice and at home, the experience has reinforced the importance of responding to change with flexibility and understanding. “The answer to better well-being is having greater empathy for everybody’s unique circumstances and situation,” she said.

For Prof. Joseph S. Vavra, an expert on monetary economics, taking care of his 6-year-old twin boys with his wife inspired his research on the impact of child care availability on Americans’ return to work. “This was definitely informed by personal experience,” he said. 

In between managing the twins’ schoolwork and screen time, Vavra worked with Booth colleagues Jonathan Dingel and Christina Patterson over Skype and email. They analyzed census data to find that, as of 2018, people living with children under age 14 accounted for 32% of the U.S. workforce. This means as many as 50 million people may struggle if their workplaces reopen before schools and child care facilities.

“The United States could do a better job of having social safety nets and helping vulnerable people who suffer from events out of their control,” he said. “This is an extreme example, but on an individual level, bad things happen all the time, and we should take social insurance seriously.”

—This story was first published on the Booth School of Business website.