"How do we want to work (together) in our company in the future?" Human resource managers were already dealing with this question before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. A central cause for this was the realisation that the already existing - as well as future - young employees from generations X, Y and Z often "tick" differently than the older ones.
While they also want to earn a living with their employment, a "good salary" alone is not enough for them. They also want to do "meaningful" work where they can fulfil themselves. And despite all their commitment to their jobs, they attach more importance to their work-life balance than previous generations.
The companies were therefore primarily concerned with the topic of "New Work" for personnel marketing reasons. Accordingly, they flirted strongly in their external presentation with such "nice-to-have factors" as a pool table, flexible working time models and the possibility of taking time off. In terms of work organisation and design in everyday working life, however, little changed.
Corona changed the perspective
But then Corona came, and at the latest after the lockdown in spring 2020, companies had to redesign many processes. And suddenly things were possible that had often been thought of in the New Work discussion, but had rarely been realised in everyday operations. For example, that
- a large proportion of employees spend their working time (largely) at home in the home office and not in the office,
- the homeworkers also do their work outside the usual office hours (because they had to look after their children or elderly parents),
- collaboration is organised via collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams,
- the necessary communication with colleagues, clients, but also external service providers is largely done digitally, and
- such support measures as training and coaching, but also feedback sessions, take place in online sessions, for example via Zoom, instead of face-to-face meetings.
And lo and behold: it worked somehow - at least when the technical infrastructure was right and people got mentally involved.
Another insight was that in the modern, digital world, which is characterised by a decreasing ability to plan, it is not enough to make the service provision processes more flexible or agile, as was often thought before. Rather, the company's values and work organisation must be questioned much more fundamentally in order to be "fit for the future" as a company.
In addition, the "spirit" that came out of the bottle due to the corona can no longer be locked away in it. In this respect, the Corona crisis is also an opportunity, because it has changed the motives for dealing with the topic of "New Work" and the framework conditions for this have changed.
Less "cosmetics", more real change
To what extent companies will seize this opportunity in real terms after the pandemic has subsided or return to "business as usual" - as far as possible - is still uncertain, because when it comes to real culture change, it usually becomes difficult. For many reasons.
For one thing, the term "new work" is not clearly defined. Although vocabulary such as freedom and participation in the community are often mentioned in the wake of social philosopher Frithjof Bergman, who coined the term in the 1990s (see Box 1), these demands are seldom concretised and operationalised - partly because the goals and expectations of New Work are usually between management and employees.
However, the interests and needs of employees usually also diverge when it comes to redesigning (collaborative) work. For example, while some welcome the home office and do not want to do without it in the future, others long for the "good old days" back at work. The situation is similar when it comes to issues such as digitalisation, working time regulations, remuneration, personal responsibility, etc. Consequently, conflicts in the workforce are pre-programmed.
Establishing "New Work Pioneers" in the organisation
Therefore, in order to master such a change project, it is necessary to have people in the companies across departments
- who fully identify with the goals involved,
- who accompany the opinion-forming and decision-making process with those affected and support them in coping with it, and
- act as a sounding board for the interests and wishes, fears and anxieties of the employees vis-à-vis the management.
Such "New Work Pioneers" ensure that the so-called employee voice flows into the planning and implementation process. They also make sure that the individual areas in the company do not drift apart in terms of their culture and working methods, but that the changes are oriented towards the common, overarching values and goals and are accordingly sustainable.
Authors: Max Leichner, Caroline Zielke, Dr Stefanie Faupel
The authors work as management and change consultants for the management consultancy Dr. Kraus & Partner. The consultancy offers an in-service New Work Pioneer training in which Max Leichner and Caroline Zielke act as lead trainers. Stefanie Faupel is also part of the New Work Team. She did her doctorate at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf and researched on the topic of "Employee Voice in Change Processes", among other things.