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“After 25 years, I thought I’d seen most types of crises”

Today, two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an emerging field of research is more relevant than ever before – business management in times of war. Professor Winni Johansen at the Department of Management became more aware of the area when displaced Ukrainian researcher Sophia Opatska moved in to her office corridor.

Professor Winni Johnansen (left) thought she had seen crises from all over the world until she met vice-Rector Sophia Opatska from Ukraine and became aware of corporate crises during war. They have now initiated a research project on this.

The first thing Professor Winni Johansen noticed about Sophia Opatska was her completely different perspective on the war in Ukraine. It was May 2022. Russia had invaded the country two months earlier and forced Ukrainians to flee. President Zelenskyj was declared a hero of the people, and the media coverage focused on war, arms and refugee flows. Yet Sophia Opatska was at Aarhus University talking about Ukrainian businesses that were fighting for survival!
Sophia Opatska was one of the displaced. From her position as pro-rector and researcher at the Ukrainian Catholic University, she came to Aarhus University with an AIAS fellowship and landed at the Department of Management. Here she met Winni Johansen, professor of crisis management and crisis communication. 

“At one of our joint meetings, Sofia presented her research in the field of business and economics – which focused on the challenges and uncertainties faced by businesses in Ukraine as a result of the war.  Pretty much everything we heard about Ukraine at that time focused on the battlefield and refugees, so this was a completely new perspective for me. Businesses were in major crisis but received almost no international attention. This was directly related to my research – how to lead and communicate during times of crisis – so I was keen to hear more,” explains Winni Johansen, who teaches and conducts research on management, organisation and communication at the Department of Management at Aarhus BSS, and who specialises in crisis management and crisis communication. 

Businesses in crisis

Soon after, Sophia Opatska joined forces with Associate Professor Adam Gordon, also from the Department of Management, on a project to investigate how Ukrainian businesses navigate wartime conditions.
“It wasn’t long before I was invited to join their discussions and became part of the collaboration,” explains Winni Johansen when describing the conversations that gave rise to a research project on how Ukrainian businesses operate in times of war. And how business owners should prepare for the eventuality that their employees are called up to fight, that their premises are bombed, or that their revenue plummets because they can’t produce any goods. Or perhaps all three at once.

In autumn 2023, the three colleagues published an article in the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, and now they are taking the first steps to investigate how companies are performing today, two years after the war began.

Attack on nuclear power plant was the turning point

Today, Sophia Opatska is back at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, in western Ukraine. Via a Zoom connection, she takes her mind back to the day she decided to leave her home country.

“In the first weeks of the invasion, I was unsure whether we should leave. Even though we received many calls and emails from friends abroad wondering how I could stay in Ukraine with two children. The turning point came when the Zaporizhya nuclear power plant was occupied by Russians. That’s when I realised we had to go,” says Sophia Opatska about her escape from Ukraine, which initially took her to Copenhagen. Friends kindly opened their homes, but Sophia Opatska realised she needed to find a more permanent solution.
One sleepless night on Google, she came across the AIAS scholarships for researchers fleeing Ukraine. It was perfect, says Sophia Opatska today.

“I applied on Monday morning and was told I was accepted on Thursday. And so in some time we moved to Aarhus”.

Valuable input from colleagues

Sophia Opatska recalls her presentation at the Department of Management, where two people in particular raised their hands and asked questions and approached me after the event. Winni Johansen and Adam Gordon.

"It was clear that they were listening to what I had to say. So we began having lots of discussions,” says Sophia Opatska. The joint project is based on data from interviews Sophia Opatska conducted with owners and managers of 20 Ukrainian companies. Its aim is to gain an insight into what competences and leadership skills a business owner needs if war breaks out. 

Sophia Opatska found the collaboration with her new colleagues from Aarhus University extremely valuable.

“Adam and Winni ask questions that make me think twice – and they have an international perspective that adds a necessary distance to my view of Ukraine. Winni is an expert in communication and management, and Adam works with strategy and future planning. Their input was a great support in the task of collecting data,” says Sophia Opatska.

Seen a lot of crises

For Winni Johansen, collaborating with her new Ukrainian colleague also opened up a new world.

“After 25 years, I thought I’d seen most types of crises; natural disasters, MeToo, and various scandals. But crisis management in a war context is new for me, and there isn’t much research on it either. It’s also incredibly relevant, now that the geopolitical situation is developing so rapidly, so I'm far from finished exploring the field of business management in times of war," says Winni Johansen.

Even though Sophia Opatska is back in Ukraine, she and Winni Johansen continue to collaborate. They have been to Prague to present their joint research at a conference, and Sophia Opatska has been back to Aarhus University as a guest. This time she stayed at Winni Johansen's house close to the university.

"We were brought together by our professional interests, but our working relationship has developed into a friendship, which I’m grateful for. Just as I am grateful for the offer that Aarhus University made me back in 2022. My friendship with Winni has had no impact on our research results, but it has definitely made the process more enjoyable,” says Sophia Opatska.