The debate about New Work has been going on for years, but it has picked up speed as a result of the global pandemic. So what exactly is New Work, and why is everyone talking about it?
The past few centuries have seen mass changes in the organization of work. Before industrialization, the majority of the population were farmers who were more or less self-sufficient. For most people throughout the Industrial Revolution, work consisted of performing a specific, repetitive task.
So how should we think about work in times of digitalization, globalization and artificial intelligence – and what does all this mean for entrepreneurs and employees? Automation is increasingly eliminating jobs in certain areas, while skilled workers are desperately needed elsewhere.
Each company has its own challenges, ideas and solutions to the problem. To help you make sense of it all, we’ve summarized the theory, concepts and approaches to New Work here.
What is New Work?
The term New Work was coined by the social philosopher Prof. Dr. Frithjof Bergmann in the 1970s. He saw New Work as a prerequisite for workers’ self-actualization, and as a reversal of so-called wage labor.
At its core, the concept rests on the following three pillars:
- Flexible working hours: Approaches such as part-time, trust-based working hours or job sharing replace the classic nine-to-five job.
- A flexible work location: Many jobs no longer require colleagues to work together in one fixed location. Flexible models, including working from home or remote work, replace classic offices.
- Flexible structures and thought patterns: Classic hierarchies are broken down by increasing networks of work, mentoring, interdisciplinary projects and knowledge transfer.
The concept of New Work
At its start, New Work was about much more than just new ways of working. As a philosopher, Bergmann was in search of an alternative counter-model to socialism. The idea for New Work was triggered by a trip to some Eastern Bloc countries in the late 1970s, where he realized that socialism no longer had a future.
A foundational part of his theory is the idea that “Old Work” – as he called it – was a phenomenon of industrial societies, whereas contemporary society was ripe with information and knowledge. According to Bergmann, the learnings of our information- and knowledge-based society – including globalization, digitization and demographic change – should also be reflected in the way we work.
Fast forward to today, where New Work is characterized by the following core principles:
New mindsets, attitudes and self-organization: Instead of tight controls and strong hierarchies, New Work focuses on self-determination and self-actualization. Employees are seeking stronger corporate cultures and values with which they can identify – and which give meaning to their work. In addition to feeling good at work, employees also want a good work-life balance.
New forms of work – mixed teams, project work and freelancers. Digital collaboration makes it possible to assemble a location-independent team. Diverse, interdisciplinary teams can work on projects simultaneously, supported by freelancers and experts. Instead of closed, homogeneous departments, teams and workplaces can be rotated within office spaces.
Innovation, creativity and agility: The common theme in companies and government agencies of “we’ve always done it this way” no longer stands a chance. Innovation, creativity and agility allow for new, more efficient processes to form. Automation reduces standard tasks and makes room for more ideas and a fresh approach. Meanwhile, agile methods ensure reliable, efficient and flexible processes.
Leadership 4.0: Leadership in the age of New Work requires radically new management methods. Managers are confronted with a wide variety of needs, and must learn to respond to them. They become mentors, supporting employees in topics such as professional development and team organization.
Why New Work?
Wondering why you as a company should start to familiarize yourself with New Work? The most direct answer is: because you have no choice.
Over the past century, it’s become clear that the elimination of jobs through automation is accompanied by a shortage of skilled workers – especially in jobs that didn’t exist previously.
What’s more, the demands of employers and a younger generation of employees are increasing at the same time. As a company, you’ll only be fit for the future if you take a sustained, long-term approach to the topic of New Work. This is the only way to find and retain top talent.
The many individual aspects of New Work can be summarized under the following three points:
Meaningfulness and self-determination:
For workers, it’s no longer just about having a job. Employees want work that’s as meaningful in a company whose values they can stand behind. Many don’t just want to work on predefined tasks, but seek to play an active role in shaping and participating in the company’s vision, and to assume more responsibility. They expect not only monetary compensation, but also appreciation, respect and trust.
Freedom is a central element of New Work. Instead of stubborn nine-to-five jobs, New Work brings more flexibility in terms of working hours, arrangements and even the location where the work is carried out. Flexi-time, trust-based working hours, a four-day work week, job sharing and other models are intended to provide employees with a better work-life balance. Home office and remote work are also models for working outside of the office and enjoying more freedom.
New Work is changing the nature of collaboration. The focus is on project work -– not in fixed hierarchies, but in flexible teams supported by freelancers or agencies. Agility plays a major role here.
New Work doesn’t offer a ready-made solution for companies. Rather, it’s a set of tools to help shape the organizational design, team and work space. When well-implemented, a New Work approach creates a win-win situation for employers and employees. Companies increase their desirability, and thus their chances of attracting new talent – all while improving the satisfaction of their current employees. Employees, on the other hand, gain more freedom for the individual design of the work itself and an improved work-life balance.
In the Smart Workplace Study 2020, conducted by the market research institute IDG Research and the telephony provider Placetel, employees were asked which aspects of New Work would be decisive for them when choosing between two similar job opportunities. The most frequently named points were the following: the opportunity for teamwork and flat hierarchies, location-independent working, a feel-good atmosphere in the office and flexible working hours for the work-life balance.
Critiques of New Work
As you can see, New Work offers many advantages, and has already become part of the everyday working lives of many younger companies. For older, more traditionally organized companies or corporations, this change is more complex – and critiques of New Work are coming through loud and clear.
This is especially the case for companies that have relied on traditional leadership, project management and working time models thus far. The introduction of New Work principles requires more organization and coordination on the part of the employer. Many processes have to be rethought, reviewed and re-introduced – which is bound to cause friction.
An oft-cited objection is perceived inefficiency and lower customer satisfaction caused by an excessive focus on New Work. And to be sure, it’s important to stress that the process of introducing New Work should be in line with a company’s other goals.
The last critique is likely on the minds of many of those who have already worked in a New Work context. Flexible working time models and location-independent work can lead to a confluence of work and private life – or so-called work-life blending. When work is no longer tied to a place and time and digital tools make it possible for work to happen from anywhere, the temptation to be available at all times and not to rest when you need it grows.
New Work – leadership and management
New forms of work, working environments and demands from employers and employees also bring new challenges for managers. As such, new Work cannot be implemented without New Leadership. But what exactly is New Leadership?
The New Work leadership style is characterized by appreciation and trust between managers and employees.
This in no way means that management and leadership is done away with. Instead, managers need to have the courage to let go of operational duties, hand over tasks, and leave more tasks in the hands of their employees. This way, the team is empowered to organize itself.
New Leadership is often a mediating position between culture and technology. The company values must be clearly communicated to the employees, and often, leaders are responsible for imparting and implementing the company values – and culture. It’s also important to provide employees with the resources they need to do their work efficiently.
For many companies, this represents a massive shift. It’s no longer about classic management and control by superiors, but rather empowering individual employees and the team as a whole. This in turn drives motivation and promotes development. In the end, the teams’ goals should always be aligned with the company’s goals. As with the other aspects of New Work, there are no general instructions. Managers must adapt their leadership style to their company’s unique circumstances, team and individual team members.
A study by the consulting firm Accenture and the World Economic Forum shows that the shift is nevertheless worthwhile. In 2020, 20,000 managers and employees were surveyed – and they saw a direct correlation between responsible leadership and a company’s performance.
Here, responsible leadership is characterized by the following 5 features. Ideally, managers should embody skills and mindsets:
- Stakeholder management
- Emotion und intuition
- Mission und goal setting
- Technology und innovation
- Intellect and competence
Another 2020 survey of 500 executives, done by e-learning company Skillsoft and consulting firm Human Capital Media Research and Advisory Group, underscores the importance of soft skills for leaders. Among soft skills, executives particularly prize leadership as a foundation of values and ethics at 77% and promoting diversity at 68%. Among the methodological competencies, skills for effective collaboration (76%), the ability to build and strengthen teams (69%) , agility (66%) and promotion of innovation (63%) were all in the foreground.
New Work – methods and examples
New Work is a comprehensive concept – but there are practical steps that can help with implementation and provide orientation. All of the New Work methods presented here should pursue the following goals: they should promote freedom and self-determination, and create meaning. These concepts can often be combined, but keep in mind that these are model solutions that should always be adapted to the individual situation and circumstances.
Job crafting is about actively shaping one’s own workplace as an employee. Instead of simply conforming to a role or profile description, job crafting is about taking ownership for shaping a role based on individual desires and needs – all while still acting in an entrepreneurially meaningful way. The motto of the job crafting founders reads as follows: “It’s not so much about motivating people to work, but about how to support people to become active and shape their own work in a motivating way.”
Examples of successful job crafting include the teacher who voluntarily gives theater, sports or computer science classes, the team member from development or accounting who writes articles for the company blog, or the employee who gives yoga or meditation classes to their colleagues before work.
If you want to let employees actively participate in the design of their own job, pass these four questions on to team members:
What additional tasks would I like to take on? How can I take on more responsibility?
Environment and relationship
What inspires me? How can I improve my relationship with colleagues and managers? Who could I work with more often?
What would make my job more meaningful? Where are my weaknesses and strengths?
Working environment and time
How can I make my workplace more attractive? How can I get through everyday life in a healthier way?
A holacracy is one of New Work’s most elaborate structuring methods. For starters, it only works if the whole organization gets turned completely upside down. The entire set of rules can be found in the Holacracy Constitution, but in short, it’s about ensuring maximum transparency and requires the participation of all employees. A holacracy is also accompanied by the absence of the classic hierarchy, management and titles.
Instead of a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, the organizational structure is represented in circles. This is based on four pillars:
In each circle, there are employees who are responsible for exchange and transparent communication between their circle and the others.
Operational meetings and big-picture meetings are separated
A clear separation is made between strategic meetings on meta-level collaboration and operational meetings on day-to-day business.
Although there are no hierarchies, there are clearly defined roles, each with their own responsibilities.
Decisions are made with the involvement of all stakeholders.
The holacratic approach isn’t suited to every company. You may have heard of Amazon subsidiary Zappos, which is considered a prime example of a failed holacracy. Introduced in 2013, unclear role assignments caused confusion and criticism among employees, who were then given a choice: adapt to the new system or leave the company. 18% of the workforce quit and the company suffered from stagnant growth.
However, the cereal producer mymuesli and the bag company Freitag are considered successful examples of the approach. Here, the holacracy was introduced and applied somewhat more cautiously, and step by step.
Whole books can be filled about agile methods – and have been! Here we’ll briefly summarize the main points. You can read about agile and new work in more detail in our blog article on the topic.
The theoretical basis for agile methods is the Agile Manifesto. This manifesto is based on these 4 pillars:
- Focus on individuals and interaction instead of processes and tools
- Functioning products are more important than detailed documentation
- Collaboration with customers comes before contract negotiations
- Reacting to change is more important than following a plan
Within agile, there are a variety different approaches, including:
Design Thinking: Design Thinking is an iterative process intended to help find ideas, especially at the beginning of product development. It’s about trying things out, making and improving – a lived culture of mistakes. A prominent example is AirBnB. The platform stumbled in the beginning, and some of the ads – full of bad photos – were not very successful. With the use of professional photographers, things turned around.
Lean Startup: Lean Startup is designed to help develop the best possible product for customers from a prototype. Instead of long planning, a beta version is launched directly to market. Customer feedback is then used for further development. A prominent example is the development of Dropbox. The founders presented their MVP in a YouTube video and incorporated the feedback of the target group. Today, 300 billion data files are stored there and Dropbox is worth one billion US dollars.
Scrum: Scrum is one of the best-known agile methods and is particularly popular in the development departments of various companies. Scrum is used when the product and business model have already been defined and now need to be developed. The Scrum process helps to set up teams in such a way that a customer-oriented project can be developed in an iterative way in the shortest amount of time possible.
New Work is here to stay, and it can no longer be ignored. Digitalization, globalization and a new generation of talented and highly educated employees are demanding new ways of working. Freedom, self-determination and meaningfulness are at the forefront of this movement. Contemporary work environments require a radically new concept of leadership: New Leadership puts employee empowerment, appreciation and trust at the forefront. There are a few different methods to choose from for implementing New Work. Try some of the approaches above and see what fits best for your company.
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