Since the beginning of the pandemic, at the latest, everyone has been talking about “New Work”. Sounds good, like a breath of fresh air in the working world, new forms of work like the 6-hour day, the 4-day week, mobile working, coworking. These topics were not new two years ago, but the pandemic changed the working world significantly for many professionals. Now discussions are beginning about how to proceed. It is becoming apparent: back to square one is not an option.
New Work: History and Definition
Let’s first look at what is behind the term “New Work”. The concept comes from the US-based philosopher and anthropologist Frithjof Bergmann, who first published the book “New Work, New Culture” in 2004. In this book, he presents his reflections critical of capitalism on a transformation of work – away from thinking what work must be to thinking what work can be. The term “New Work” is still used today, gladly as a synonym for Work 4.0:
“Digitalisation has changed our working world. Processes that used to require a lot of effort now run automatically. Networking employees is much easier, cross-location collaboration is no problem. Knowledge is becoming more and more important. New professions are emerging. This transformation has also changed the demands and needs of employees and thus the way work is organised in companies. New Work describes this transformation of our working world.” (Source: Haufe Akademie)
From the industrial society to the knowledge and information society
New Work has thus become a collective term for all new forms of work that have already emerged as a result of the transformation towards a knowledge and information society. During the pandemic, the transformation of the world of work has progressed. Mobile working and home offices received a boost, especially in larger companies, particularly in the service sector and among higher income groups. This is made clear by current figures from the Constance Home Office Study.
However, the changes brought about by digitalisation and globalisation are also affecting the manufacturing sector, from large to medium-sized and small companies. Here, the automation and rationalisation of processes is advancing. Digitalisation enables the networking of tools, machines, products and people in production.
What we can observe across the board: Predictable career paths, permanent (full-time) jobs and traditional family and work structures (he full-time, she part-time) – the classic characteristics of Old Work are eroding faster than many expected. The new way of working has long since ceased to be the preserve of hip start-ups. While large corporations have been setting a new course due to this change for years, some medium-sized companies are only now beginning to actively shape the new world of work. This is right and important, because almost 60 percent of all employees subject to social security contributions work in small and medium-sized enterprises. As a strategy consultant, I support these companies with my know-how on their way, which is sometimes stonier than expected.
The urge to change and its risks
New Work, Work 4.0, Industry 4.0: all terms initially sound like a departure. But where to and with what consequences for people? I observe that in addition to specialist knowledge, a whole range of other skills are now becoming important:
- coping with the changing forms of work,
- working constructively with others, and
- finding a good balance between habits and flexibility.
Are we, are our workers, well and professionally prepared for this? How can people like me who are active in consulting companies provide support here or intervene in a moderating way when conflicts arise? And above all, how open is management, works councils and employees to new business models, digital technologies and changed management styles? These points need to be explored professionally so that the departure is successful and can be sustained over a long period of time.
What does New Work need to succeed?
Without the acceptance of employees, New Work is doomed to failure. And of course decision-makers, almost always management, would like to have a recipe for success so that New Work succeeds in their company. Some of the ingredients are well known:
- a different corporate and failure culture that allows people to try out new things without fear
- changed workflows and flatter hierarchies
- the willingness of employees to continuously train and develop professionally and personally
- more digital skills
- Best practice examples and role models that provide a certain orientation.
Perhaps you can think of other ingredients, for example for your sector, your markets and your company. Because there will be – and this is also becoming apparent – many ways and solutions to fill New Work with life.