Exploring diversity and the wider world were among the unexpected benefits this past year for far-flung business students in a virtual international research team based at the University of Guelph.
The group members, hailing from three continents, were initially supposed to work face to face along with Dr. Nita Chhinzer, a management professor in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics. But then came COVID-19 travel and working restrictions.
“We shifted to a completely online environment,” said Chhinzer, whose team studied workplace restructuring and layoffs during the pandemic. Accommodating varied time zones was a challenge, she added, but “we still managed to meet.”
More than that, she said, “world-building” ended up being an unexpected bonus for the group.
Chhinzer said the virtual globe-spanning gave four students – along with the professor – a “chance to get international perspectives, diversity and inclusion of thought that we need to have to create workplaces and research teams that have multiple viewpoints.”
Referring to U of G’s long-time commitment to internationalization, she said, “We’re practising what we preach. We want to demonstrate that we are an internationally welcoming university.”
Workplace research brought together students from three continents
Only one of her four group members this past summer was a domestic student: Haohan Zhang, originally from Guelph, now entering the fourth year of her applied human nutrition program.
Zhang’s teammates included PhD candidate student Akierah Binns, who grew up in Jamaica and who was teaching English in Japan when she applied to U of G for grad studies. Chhinzer said Binns has developed an interest in employment relations experiences of immigrants to Canada – a critical topic for this country, where one in five people were born elsewhere.
Two other members worked from abroad: Sebastian Hamid, a fourth-year business administration student at the CEIPA business school in Medellin, Colombia; and Jia “Ray” Mingrui, also completing an undergrad in business administration at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Both Hamid and Mingrui were hired under the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program. The program allows international undergrads to work with Canadian university faculty members for 12 weeks.
Hamid looked at employee downsizing and mass layoffs in Ontario, using data from a provincial government ministry.
He said studying downsizing strategies may help organizations, many of which are ill-prepared to conduct layoffs. “This research aims to guide organizational approaches to downsizing by using evidence to identify best practices in layoffs.”
Building relations, discovering cultures among benefits for students
Hamid said arranging meetings with group members around the world was difficult, but that wrinkle was outweighed by the benefits of belonging to a global team.
“Working with international teammates is like discovering the world across the corporation, discovering their cultures, their way of doing business, and building relationships and bridges of knowledge,” said Hamid, adding that “for me, the most important benefit is making new friends.”
He plans to explore further international research opportunities between Latin America and other nations.
In Guelph, Zhang spent the summer analyzing differences in communications about downsizing that employers shared either with employees or with media and government. She said the research enabled her to hone skills in data analysis and writing that will be useful in her studies and, ultimately, her career.
Beyond that, she said, the experience gave her unexpected connections and perspectives, despite pandemic restrictions.
“I have spent much of my life in Ontario, so it was a unique experience working with an international research team,” said Zhang. “I think it’s important to work with and learn from a diverse group of people as the world is becoming even more connected.
“Through this experience, I got to listen and learn about news that was happening in other students’ countries that I would not have been aware of otherwise.”
Global experience offers benefits for professor as well
Chhinzer said her group members had opportunities to hone skills in collaborating, presenting and speaking on various topics. Early, she helped arrange for the students to connect with U of G initiatives including wellness sessions, international student events and the Office of Diversity and Human Rights. She also encouraged them to conduct independent online conversations with each other.
“This group has definitely found ways to rely on each other, grow and expand their horizons using research,” said Chhinzer.
In turn, the U of G professor also benefited from her students’ varied backgrounds.
Binns’s experience of employee-employer relations in Japan has given Chhinzer a view of cultural differences from employment legislation to occupational health and safety. “Those differences help enlighten my perspective,” she said.
“Bringing together multiple perspectives was a unique and challenging opportunity,” added the professor, who said the experience had her returning to the classroom this fall with added anticipation and enthusiasm for teaching. “My experience with these students has inspired me to give my best.”
Much of the group’s work was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Dr. Nita Chhinzer