New Work has been the subject of various discussions at conferences for several years now. Sometimes the topic is the introduction of collaboration applications (digital workplace). Others use the term in connection with dismantling hierarchies and introducing agile teams. And the topic of work-life balance is usually on the agenda. The Zukunftsinstitut even identified New Work as a megatrend and defines it as nothing less than ‘an epochal upheaval that begins with the question of meaning and completely revolutionises the world of work’. The world of work seems to be changing. To gain a better understanding of what New Work is all about, we need to have a look at the past:

Work that you really really want

The term New Work was coined by Austrian-American philosopher and anthropologist Frithjof Bergmann in the late 1970s. His "6 months-6 months proposal” offered an alternative to communist and capitalist working conditions. People spend six months of the year working in their regular jobs, and for the remaining six months they spend their time serving society. During this period, the Center for New Work, established by Mr Bergmann, supports people in finding out what they ‘really, really want to do’ to earn a living in future. The aim of New Work was to create a more humane work culture that meets the human need for ‘independence, freedom of action, self-realization and participation in the community’.

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The renaissance of a utopia

40 years later, New Work is experiencing a veritable renaissance. Why is this the case? Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 are causing fundamental changes in the labour market. The OECD forecasts that 14% of activities in OECD countries are highly automatable and will have a direct impact on employees. An additional 32% of activities are subject to significant change. Companies must change or go under, like Neckermann, Nokia or Karstadt.

Time for agile actionists

Our country needs new methods, a fact already grasped by many companies. So, climb aboard the salvation of the New Work train and become an agile actionist. Workshops instead of meetings, sticky notes instead of a time clock. Let’s get lean, collaborative and above all, agile. What matters is to ensure that employees are once again completely motivated and annual targets are within reach. Unfortunately, however, the spirit of design thinking soon fizzles out when employees leave the room full of colourful slips of paper to return to their everyday work routine, and the old, largely industrial organisational structures.

New Work needs meaning

True cultural change can only be achieved if working structures are created where people can work according to their needs: independently, under their own responsibility, collaboratively. As Frithjof Bergmann recognised, people want self-realisation, and they want it in the workplace as well. Self-realisation can only be achieved if employees understand the meaning of their work and are able to identify with it. Because people search for meaning. They want to be part of a big idea, and when they are, this makes them willing to make sacrifices and contribute to the sometimes arduous entrepreneurial change through all its ups and downs. Or as entrepreneur David Hieatt says,

"Change is your secret fuel. People want to be part of change. People want to be part of history. Teams gather around ideas that will change things”.

No cultural change without a purpose

But how do we get ‘ideas that will change things’? First of all, a company must search for meaning, for its own determination, its own purpose. What is the purpose of your company? In other words, why does your company exist at all? The purpose reveals the meaning of your company and creates an identification platform for the people who come into contact with your company. A meaningful purpose is what sets companies that really want cultural change apart from those that just scratch the cultural surface a bit with a few New Work-style measures, but continue to exclusively concentrate their actions on increasing efficiency and maximising profits. This may motivate profit-oriented employees, but they will be out the door as soon as the next best offer comes along. According to Simon Sinek, profit cannot be a corporate goal, instead it is always just a result. Because, as Frederic Laloux so aptly puts it,

“We have reached a stage where we often pursue growth for growth’s sake, a condition that in medical terminology would simply be called cancer”.

Purpose as a “relationship glue” within the company

In its study "Putting Purpose to Work", PricewaterhouseCoopers identifies a direct link between the low employee retention figures of the Gallup Engagement Index and an insufficiently rooted purpose in companies. From the point of view of the authors, ‘for employees, the purpose is the gateway to personal fulfilment’, and no less than the guiding principle for decisions and conduct across all levels of the company. Millennials, says the study, are 5.3 times more likely to stay with a company if they feel connected to the company’s purpose. This applies to what will soon be the largest group of employees, and is an important factor in view of the shortage of skilled workers.

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Make what the company stands for visible again

Experience shows that companies often face the largest obstacles when it comes to individually determining the purpose. What once began with an idea or vision of a founder has given way over the years to quarterly and annual results. But this is where the transformation begins, in determining the purpose. Here is where we as a company create a platform for identification, where we once again show what the company stands for and what it contributes to society.

If we provide employees with a new perspective far removed from company goals, we start treating them like people with their own visions and ideas again, and not just like production and cost factors. We let them do their jobs and not just be obedient. Cultural change will be successful and employees will feel connected to the company once again, because they will be doing what they really want and earning money in the process. And you will be supporting your company in shaping the inevitable change in the best possible way.

“The new technology comes towards us like a large wave. If we do nothing it could drown us, but if we move with intelligence and skill, the wave could lift us higher than we ever were before.”
– Frithjof Bergmann in “A 2020 that we could attain”

Read also our second article on New Work.

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¹ Gallup Engagement Index Deutschland 2018