New Work is commonly understood as an employee-centred form of leadership and working. The focus is on creativity, development opportunities and self-determined action. Heike Bauer helps companies make their transformation to New Work. For her, however, there is a lot more meaning in the term: she also links it to the parallelism of activities, the flexibility of biographies and, not least, an attitude critical of growth-oriented capitalism. In this sense, New Work is, for her, a necessity for dealing with the future.
In the 1980s, the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann suggested transforming the capitalist system of wage work into something he called New Work. This New Work has three pillars: it should secure livelihoods, be based on the latest technologies, and it should leave room for work that people “really, really want”. What of this has become reality?
Reality is still very far from the vision. Bergmann also realised this during his lifetime. But I think we are on the right track. As well as patience, we also need a deeper understanding of what Bergmann actually wanted. It is not only about digital transformation and not only a matter of changing structures. Instead, it is more about profound cultural change. And something like that cannot be implemented overnight.
What constitutes this culture of New Work?
First and foremost, it is a culture that is less money-driven. Bergmann certainly did not want to speak badly about the whole of capitalism. But the way modern capitalism deals with people and resources is under criticism. Our problems – such as intergenerational issues or climate change – have a lot to do with the values according to which we live and work. The change in values, which is being contended now, not least, between the generations, provides fuel for New Work.
The only way to describe New Work is as a new value system and a new attitude towards work.
Let’s be a little more specific. How do you define New Work?
The only way to describe New Work is as a new value system and a new attitude towards work. We must not confuse New Work with theories such as Work 4.0, which deals with new working models. This is also important, but is merely the consequence of the digital transformation. New Work is also not a measure for development of human resources or an organisational method, and is certainly not a process. But the use of technology will create exactly the freedom we need to maintain our standards and allow us to devote ourselves to other things and deal with the question of meaningfulness in what we do, instead of just worrying about actual wage work.
And how should we use the freedom?
If we can think about what makes sense, we can also be more attentive to ourselves as human beings. This actually has more of a humanitarian background than a philosophical one.
And also a pragmatic one?
Yes, it is also about health aspects.
Bergmann’s often quoted bon mot is the one about work that you “really, really want”. What does that look like for you personally? Do you do work that you really, really want?
Sometimes. But it was never Bergmann’s intention for people to only work when they feel like it or to only do work that fulfils them. And thanks to Bergmann and New Work, I have learned how to organise and do my work so that I can stand behind it with my values. I am also very technology-driven myself and always try to be up-to-date for my clients so I can assess the quality and use of tools and methods.
How did you come across New Work?
In a way, I was born with a rebellious side thanks to my mother and I have always first questioned instructions that seemed incomprehensible to me. However, there were two life-changing experiences that introduced me to the topic. First of all, more than 20 years ago I had a team leader who, probably without even knowing about Bergmann, had exactly his understanding of work. He gave us responsibility as a team within the department of a large corporation and let us organise our working days ourselves. This included one hundred percent trust and confidence that we were doing our job well. That was the first time I experienced something like that and I realised that work can be fun. Later, I joined various initiatives with people who were involved in New Work, attended training courses and gradually expanded my knowledge.
The second point is very personal. It concerns my father. After switching from being self-employed to being employed when he was over 40, he no longer had the courage to change his job even though his health suffered greatly from having a narcissistic boss, and the entire working atmosphere was one of frustration and fear. Even as a manager, he could hardly put up with this toxic atmosphere. From the day he retired, all his health problems such as extreme headaches and severe back pain suddenly disappeared. He experienced what Bergmann criticised about this kind of work: it is like an insidious disease. From Monday to Friday the symptoms build up and at the weekend we cure them again.
Realisation is one thing. But how did you find the work you really wanted?
I ventured into New Work support in combination with digital consulting, which was the basis for starting my own business in 2015. Then, in 2018, came research work for the study on Work 4.0, which I did together with the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland and other partners. Only then did I really realise how much experience and knowledge I had in this field. I wanted to pass this on – in Bergmann’s spirit.
When I work with companies, I invite people to think about what else work could be.
You mentioned it earlier: self-organisation is part of New Work. Isn’t New Work a euphemism for flexibility and agility?
If you ask around among process optimisers, agile is at the top of the list and New Work is subsumed, as it were. Agility and flexibility definitely fit in with New Work. But until I have developed a new way of thinking, I don’t need to do anything with this. When I work with companies, I invite people to think about what else work could be. Of course, this also includes being clear about how the organisation is structured, whether people really want to change anything at all and whether they are aware of the consequences. When employees become aware of the possibilities of genuine transformation, it becomes difficult to press the return button.
Don’t companies come to you precisely because they want to change something?
There are various reasons why companies come to me. However, I would like to say that I am very consistent with my values, which is why I would never work for certain companies. I have deliberately focused on SMEs. These have a lot of problems right now, not least because of demographic change. Many also really want to change something and break out of old structures and patterns of behaviour. But they do not know exactly how to resolve these problems. That’s where I come in and work with the management first. I try to find out if I can help the company at all. New Work is a development without a definable end. My role is to accompany. This costs money and consumes a lot of time and energy.
How many companies actually get involved in this?
Many want to, but few get involved. I advise a maximum of five to six companies per year and otherwise try to point out the necessity through presentations and workshops; in other words, I prepare the ground. In specific support measures I have to deal with many individuals who also have private concerns and problems. Fear of losing leadership skills, for example, or financial losses also come up. And of course there are companies that expect a toolbox of methods that would let them carry out the transformation themselves. But there is no such thing as this self-explanatory toolbox of methods with a guarantee of a change in mindset.
So structural changes are not the goal in every case?
I am dealing with a company, for example, that is actually looking for self-organisation. At the same time, there are two sons there who will take over the company at a later point. If the successors want to take over the leadership later, it will be difficult with self-organising teams. Being honest, that is, to really become aware of the situation and also to stand by the facts, and seeing how that goes together is a key task.
“Because it has always been that way” is a phrase that, usually, always comes up at the start.
What problems keep arising?
Old-fashioned patterns of behaviour. “Because it has always been that way” is a phrase that, usually, always comes up at the start. This is where I come in and ask: what would be the consequence if we did this differently now?
Why do you work exclusively with SMEs?
Because I can also speak in plain language with them. Here there is definitely the risk that I am then out, which also happens. Often this is already clarified in the preliminary discussion, and if, in my approach, I recognise that I cannot achieve the objective, then I communicate immediately. Because only if the management itself sets an example with a future-oriented attitude will the change succeed in the whole company. It is not enough if this is only initiated by HR after being instructed to “do something with New Work”.
The demotivation associated with starting something and then stopping is very high. And the company will then probably lose its best employees.
Why do companies want a transformation towards New Work in the first place?
On the one hand, those that have already experienced new concepts and are enthusiastic about them want a transformation. However, many are not like this. On the other hand, many companies are no longer able to recruit skilled workers, which is why it is also a matter of public image.
Companies are undergoing transformation because they have to. But it is not necessarily an affair of the heart. Or is it?
That is still the case for many. But half-heartedness is no longer an option. Especially a younger generation that is familiar with rating tools looks very closely at what is said about companies, which ratings are manipulated and what is actually behind them. Companies that hire many employees based on false premises will lose them again very soon. High turnover of staff not only costs a lot of money. It also means long-term damage to a company’s reputation.
The possibility of continuing our education, possibly even teaching ourselves, and of entering other professions has set many things in motion.
You talk about the younger generation. Is it them that are demanding New Work?
Among other things. But the shortage of skilled workers is also affecting the labour market. In addition, there is much greater transparency on the training market. The possibility of continuing our education, possibly even teaching ourselves, and of entering other professions has set many things in motion. Here, too, old patterns of behaviour disappear and an enormous dynamic emerges. However, this also means that companies looking for skilled workers consider profiles where the training is not a good fit. This fit can be ensured later on the job.
But New Work cannot be for recruitment alone.
What we also still have – and I hope this will be resolved by the shortage of skilled workers – is age discrimination. Older employees are valued as loyal and experienced. But if you lose your job after 45, you won’t find a new one so quickly in many sectors; at the very least, the choice becomes much smaller and your salary expectations often have to be adjusted downwards accordingly. And, in addition, women also still encounter many problems.
Women, older employees and people with lower levels of education are the groups of people who receive the least support and training within companies.
Exactly. But I think that is changing. More and more initiatives are emerging and the number of people exchanging views on such discrimination is growing. Accordingly, more and specific offers are also being created. It is an advantage that the initiators have dealt with the existing problems in practice and have an understanding of the complex interrelationships. This should actually also be expected from the large education providers and adult education organisations.
New Work is also in interaction with other social phenomena such as the parallelism of activities, the flexibilisation of life phases and of role models.
Definitely. Especially for younger people, it is important to no longer have to work 100 percent in a single company. People have a permanent employer. But, at the same time, there are other projects running that are close to their heart. We could also put it this way: for Generation Z, which is said to be no longer career-driven and not want to work at all, it is enough to have a 60 percent job in a company. Because, at the same time, a start-up has to be built up, a voluntary project carried out or the family looked after. That is, then, the work that people really, really want. Smart companies make room for that.
We need the global community so that we can continue to develop and keep up with innovations.
To what extent is New Work a global movement?
New Work is a global phenomenon. But many people do not know the term as such. And often the term New Work is not known either. I have spoken to colleagues in Scandinavian countries who have not yet heard of it, but who have been implementing the basic principles in their companies for a long time. In many areas, the Nordic countries are further ahead than us anyway when it comes to focusing on the human component. Whether Bergmann’s deeper idea that capitalism should also be questioned in terms of consumer behaviour or production methods is present, I cannot judge. But the idea is positively received.
We need the global community so that we can continue to develop and keep up with innovations. And, in this, we must be able to move on a shared level of values. Ultimately, it is now also about how we survive as a society and save our planet. We can only do that with each other and not against each other.
So New Work is a necessity?
Yes. And we can no longer turn back the clock. But as I said, transformation is often associated with fears – of losing power and status, for example. What Bergmann understood by New Work is therefore, first and foremost, personality development. Actual adult education consists of finding out what I actually do or can do with my work – and therefore also with my life.
The keyword here is adult education. What does the adult education market have to offer in terms of New Work?
Old wine in new wineskins, I would say at the moment. As I mentioned, there are some great initiatives that really combine new thinking and proven organisational models and methods with philosophical concepts in a meaningful way. I also learn a lot from them myself, which I think is hugely important. But I also see a lot of training topics and areas that have merely been spruced up with a few new terms and repackaged, but are more or less the same as before. The programmes are often packed with theoretical knowledge. But if the culture or the perspective do not change, all these theories will have no effect. Many managers who are sent for training will not be able to change anything because the framework conditions do not exist in the company or they are not taught the skills required for implementation at all. Those who, through good training, have recognised and understood that free decisions and personal development are not a contradiction in terms for a commercial enterprise, but rather cover a deep human need, then often leave the companies or start their own businesses.
Adult education and training should increase the number of creative impulses for learning that support a growth mindset, and this is for all employees in companies. Supervised reading for expensive certificates is no longer in keeping with the times. Knowledge alone can be acquired online at any time through self-study.
Despite a New Work movement gaining in strength, capitalism is coming back with a vengeance. We only have to look at an entrepreneur like Elon Musk, who is hardly driven by human aspects, thinks nothing of working from home and probably also nothing of entrepreneurial activities by his employees. Does that not frustrate you?
Of course. But Elon Musk and entrepreneurs like him will lose their best people. And customers will no longer follow them either, because terms like “luser” were also coined out of such arrogance. There is often a feeling that customers are forgotten in New Work, but the opposite is the case. Because customers benefit from satisfied employees and, in turn, are usually satisfied themselves. I wish that the companies going down the New Work route were more self-confident and stronger. We need these positive examples, there are a lot of them in Switzerland. These are companies that are organised, for example, in holacratic, sociocratic or collegial organisational models and offer their employees creative spaces and opportunities for development. These are the companies that we need, that will survive and will set new standards in the long term.