Welcome to New Work

Working from the beach? Reachable wherever you are? Digitalization is changing the world of work dramatically. We report on the status quo of gainful employment.

New Work

Many employees can now choose their own workplace. Photo: Patrick Strattner

Matthias Riegel was confident that he knew his colleagues well – until he brought up the topic of their salaries. The conversations were necessary, as his employer – Berlin agency Wig-Wam – was introducing the ‘desired salary’ system. Every employee, from the broom cupboard to the boardroom, was to choose their salary. Riegel reveals: “The most surprising result for me personally, as a relatively self-assured person, was that there were team members that did not feel ‘worthy’ enough to personally request their desired salary on the basis of their strengths. That really shocked me.” An even greater change was the transformation of the agency into a collective, within which each and every employee is their own boss. This Berlin agency presents one of the most radical examples of new payment and working models in German business. However, in countless other firms around the world, ‘New Work’ models are finding traction.

The term ‘New Work’ was coined by Professor of Philosophy Frithjof Bergmann in the 1980s. Influenced by a journey through the former Eastern bloc and its moderately successful systems, and employing his own critical view of capitalism, he sought a new model. From his standpoint, the onward march of automation means that businesses should cast off the shackles of the typical hierarchical structures of industrialized societies. He is a proponent of ‘smart consumption,’ a type of gainful employment that is governed by actual demand, in contrast to wage labor which he views as modern slavery. Bergmann insists that we must focus on our own internal rhythm and use it as a framework to define what role work will play in our lives.

“Gig Economy” can have health consequences

New Work thereby also represents a new way of life, in which one can decide freely when, where and how one works. In this era of Industry 4.0 and comprehensive digitalization of processes, New Work is developing as a strong new trend. Even big business is adopting this more relaxed approach to working hours and location in order to attract or bind professionals to certain departments. In start-ups, this lifestyle is part of the corporate culture. They rely on the sense of responsibility to the project of the individual. The employee relies on their own strengths. Committing one’s entire working life to the company is no longer something that employees aspire to.

Whether Uber driver, freelance IT specialist, career coach or copywriter – more and more people are working independently, from assignment to assignment. The next job depends on the quality of the last. Referred to as the ‘gig economy,’ this new economic model can affect the health of those involved. A study by the Technical University of Dortmund revealed that freelancers are at a higher risk of Burnout Syndrome than those in full-time employment. According to the study, the absence of separation between the professional and the private is a key driver of constant exhaustion, anxiety and inability to recuperate. Of course, many full-time employees are in a similar situation – more and more of them are working increasingly autonomously and are able to decide with relative freedom when, where and how they work. They are able to do this while remaining part of a team that can absorb some of the stress, but also cause additional pressure through mutual dependency. Co-working on an international level has long been standard in many businesses and is often done across company borders.

Viewing work and health together

The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has determined that many flexible employment arrangements are linked to poorer health, often a result of the mental load. “We know that work has a huge influence on our health and wellbeing,” explains NIOSH Expert Casey Chosewood. More needs to be done to investigate health risks in the world of work, and better understand the relationship between work and health. Industrial production continues to migrate around the world – now it is even moving from China to countries with even lower labor costs.

Whether “always on” is viewed as freedom or a liability is often a question of perspective. Photo: Patrick Strattner

Whether “always on” is viewed as freedom or a liability is often a question of perspective. Photo: Patrick Strattner

There are similar developments in the service sector too, especially in the area of digital processes. In India, for example, a huge market for IT experts has arisen. A current study by strategy consultancy Bain takes a somewhat pessimistic view for industrial nations such as the USA: according to the study, automation may eliminate 20 to 25 percent of current jobs by the end of the 2020s. This would predominantly affect those on low to medium incomes. But even in the medical industry, modern diagnosis tools are on the increase, such as the automatic detection of skin cancers. While this enables doctors to spend more time in dialog with patients, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) observes that digital technologies may have a pronounced impact on the importance of locational factors. So pronounced in fact, that several production stages currently executed in developing regions may be relocated back to industrial nations. “A technological leap may also eliminate the knowledge advantage of established businesses in certain locations,” states Oliver Stettes, Manager of the Labor Market and World of Work Competence Team at the IW.

Global standards for safety

Up for debate is whether the global distribution of labor is accompanied by a unification of safety standards. Stettes believes that these were exported from industrial nations along with the technological expertise. “This is not guaranteed,” counters Thieß Petersen, Senior Advisor at the Bertelsmann Foundation. Shortcuts in safety – be it fire prevention, occupational safety or environmental protection – result in cost savings and thereby an inferred competitive advantage. “If there are no effective inspection bodies in the country, or even no safety standards to begin with, the prevailing safety standards of the developed nations will not be adhered to,” says Petersen.

New Work and management

In a recent study, the British Institute for Employment Studies determined that – in impending business restructures – it is important to promote a culture of learning, support the internal exchange of knowledge, and introduce flatter hierarchies. Artificial intelligence may improve decision-making. Businesses will no longer need to rely on the gut feeling of its leadership, but will be able to use data to provide fact-based management.

Mobile phones blur the line between business and leisure. Photo: Patrick Strattner

Mobile phones blur the line between business and leisure. Photo: Patrick Strattner

For Wolfgang Fassnacht, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at software development company SAP, New Work is not a question of money. “Modern working arrangements don’t require millions in investment,” he states. SAP has developed a ‘project marketplace’ and thereby begun to allow employees to choose the projects on which they wish to work. The software company has relied on a new management style for several years. Managers are to place confidence in their employees, and only inspect results, not the working method. Employees are guided towards solutions with a more coaching-based leadership style and targeted questions. “Through our new management style, the assessments of managers by their employees have improved considerably,” explains Fassnacht. New Work pays off for SAP. “We don’t implement new work methods as a social nicety – we do it because the business benefits from them,” he continues.

Criticism from the founder

Frithjof Bergmann, Founder of the New Work movement, views the handling of new working arrangements by business critically: “Many enterprises are simply using New Work as wage labor in a miniskirt.” They want to sell the work as sexy, but not really make any meaningful change – necessary under Bergmann’s New Work concept. Work that bores and exhausts employees over the long term leads to burnout. And this ultimately damages the business. Many people are afraid that their jobs will be eaten up by automation in future. “New Work gives people hope,” says Bergmann. The philosopher campaigns that employers should give employees a period of freedom within their working hours, so that they can find out for themselves “what they really, really want to do.”

Six Pioneers of New Work

The more powerful the mobile Internet gets, the greater the opportunities for New Work. Behind this mix of technology and philosophy are ideas that have already been around for decades.

E-mail: Ray Tomlinson sent electronic messages in 1971 using the @ sign. Smiled at first, today it is an important way of communicating. Photo: Miguel Riopa / Getty Images Scrum: Jeffrey Victor Sutherland created the "Scrum framework" with the roles and procedures that are now regarded as the basis of agile work. Photo: Anders Wegge Keller / CC BY-SA 3.0 Internet: Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and constructed the first web server. In 1991, he built the first website and is considered the father of the Internet. Photo: Laura Cavanaugh / Getty Images New Work: Frithjof Bergmann is considered the founder of the New Work movement. He developed in the 1980s, a counter-model to conventional wage labor. Photo: dpa Picture Alliance / Prohaska Rene Kanban: Taiichi Ohno introduced the Kanban system at Toyota in 1947. It distributes responsibilities and control tasks to more employees, thereby increasing motivation. Photo: Public Domain Smartphone: Frank J. Canova worked at IBM on a device called "Simon". It was the first mobile phone capable of sending e-mails. Photo: Public Domain / CC BY-SA 4.0
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