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Don't be a caveman - why a pandemic is the perfect place to start a clean Slate

Opinion

Never waste a good crisis, they say. So if your business hasn’t tapped into the potential of the pandemic, you’ve got rocks in your head, writes Michael Blucher

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“How’s Mr Slate going?” the corporate type asked his former colleague, as the pair caught up for the first time face-to-face since the world turned upside down.

The reference to the name “Slate” was a pointer to the heavily loaded question, and suggested he already knew the answer.

“How do you think Slate’s going?” his coffee partner replied. “He’s a chronic micromanager in the best of times. How do you reckon he’s coping, having people at home, and not being able to check up on what they’re doing, every minute of the day?”

The “prehistoric” readers might recognise the name “Slate”. He was Fred Flintstone’s boss, the miserly principal of the Bedrock Quarry and Gravel Company – remember, where Fred at knock-off time, used to slide down the back of the Tyrannosaurus, shouting “Yabba Dabba Doo”? Oh to do that, just one time in your working life.

“Mr Slate” was the primary reason coffee drinker No.1 had left the business. He could no longer tolerate somebody – let alone the managing director – peering over his shoulder, monitoring everything he did and didn’t do.

Beyond the stupidity of paying a senior manager a lot of money, and then doing the job for them, didn’t the MD have his own responsibilities? Like running the joint?

The manager had put up with it for 10 months, but became so disillusioned he resigned, without so much as a casual shift at Macca’s to fall back on.

Throughout the pandemic lock-down, leaders of business have been challenged like never before, with the reality of team members working remotely adding a whole new layer of complexity to the leadership puzzle.

For any managing director with micromanagement tendencies, like Slate, COVID-19 must have been like kryptonite – nobody in the office to fuss over, or to run a fine comb over their work. No close quarter control of what they’re working on, who they’re dealing with and for how long.

Perhaps for the first time in their corporate career, they’ve had no choice but to trust what their people were doing.

Talk about a leap of faith.

Based on anecdotal evidence, it’s evident some leaders have leapt boldly and landed safely. Landed in a much better place than they were before the world started to unravel.

I’ve heard of two professional services firms where the mood has never been more buoyant. Reins have been loosened, autonomy granted, and in both cases, budgets for the last quarter have been smashed.

However reluctantly, the leaders of the two businesses have simply stepped back and let their people perform their duties, as they’ve seen fit.

Apparently in a lot of cases, that’s not “9 to 5”, with an hour’s break in the middle of the day. It’s far more fluid, with extended periods of frantic productivity, followed, for instance, by a lengthy bike ride at lunchtime, or a few holes of golf with a 10-year-old son late in the afternoon.

Work to live, not live to work. As long as the job gets done, the results are good, and you’re sufficiently accessible to your colleagues, what does it matter?

There will always be a need for offices. No amount of morning Zoom meetings will ever replace that corridor catchup, or the casual conversation over the coffee machine in the kitchen. The sense of belonging and relatedness are fundamental to our neurological needs.

At that same time, over the past four or five months, we’ve learned new and different ways – better ways – of arriving at the same destination.

There’s no single answer that’s set in stone. Or granite.

And the thinking of the Mr Slates of the corporate world is now clearly even more prehistoric than it was in March.

As I’ve suggested before, any business who “emerges from COVID-19, doing exactly what they were doing before the virus hit, has seriously wasted an opportunity”.

Yabba Dabba Doo.

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