Rethinking the world of work
© Getty
December 2019

Rethinking the world of work

By Volker Paulun and Dr. Lorenz Steinke
Developing increasingly sophisticated products at a continually accelerating pace – this can only be achieved with lean, agile organizational structures. “New Work” is the name of the new fitness formula for companies.

Bodo Janssen is shocked. In 2010, the CEO of the family-owned hotel and holiday resort operator Upstalsboom initiates a survey among his 650 employees. The painful feedback: “We need a different boss.” So, what does the boss do who has just suffered such blatant rejection? He beats feet – heading for a monastery. Guided by Benedictine monk and management trainer Anselm Grün, Janssen develops a new view of many things. As a result, his employees get a new boss, who has the same name and looks the same as the previous one but returns with an all-new company culture in his travel bags. Henceforth he grants every one of his employees the freedom to pursue their personal development and to dedicate themselves to things that are important to them – in self-organized teams – along the lines of Pericles: “The secret to happiness is freedom. And the secret to freedom is courage.” Janssen mustered precisely this kind of courage and among the rewards he reaped was a boost of success in business: the sickness absence rate dropped from eight to three percent, both employee and customer satisfaction significantly increased and sales doubled in the first three years following his change in philosophy.

New Work is actually old school

The “Upstalsboom way” is a good example of a successful implementation of New Work because it’s largely congruent with two basic ideas of Austrian-American philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, who coined the term New Work in the mid-nineteen-seventies. Now nearly 90 years old, Bergmann found at the time that, thanks to technological innovations and continuous productivity increases, the working world provided more room for the individual to pursue his or her personal wishes and concepts of how to live one’s life. Work, he demands, should be organized in a way so that it’s not forced upon people. Instead, everyone should do the work they really, really want. Bergmann’s second idea is that information technology makes hierarchies superfluous and replaces them by more efficient and faster horizontal structures.

Hence the idea of self-organized teams with self-determined team members, which – driven by technology – was adopted by the software industry in the nineteen-nineties. Multi-tiered hierarchies, complex reporting systems and controlling practices setting the pace: All these factors had been slowing projects down so much that software was often obsolete before it even reached the client. In addition, many applications were never finished because bugs detected during their development stage were not reported to higher levels of management, resulting in ever new completion deadlines that employees at the operating level knew could not be met. Market success returned only when companies switched to a more open organizational culture and flatter hierarchies.

Rethinking the world of work
Open work spaces for collaborative teamwork, quiet zones for focused work and flexible workshop areas: the space utilization concept of Schaeffler’s Digital Transformation Center (DTC) is fully aligned with the needs of digital, creative and agile ways of working© Schaeffler
Corporations implement New Work – with success

Steadily growing pressure to innovate, shorter and shorter product cycles, and manufacturing and development technologies are the reason why the ideas of New Work flourish also in major corporations that have traditionally tended to be rigid. Let’s take Siemens for example. There the project of a new factory building had tied itself in knots – ultimately to the point of total standstill – due to hierarchies, control mechanisms and detailed planning. Siemens’ project specialists Sabine Kluge, Ronny Grossjohann and Dr. Robert Harms initiated a radical change toward self-organized agile ways of working, in which the project members became real entrepreneurs and project owners. The resulting factory surpassed all expectations, according to Siemens.

Fast, agile and highly effective teams with members who think like entrepreneurs: these so-called intrapreneurs are the transformation vanguard of major corporations on the road toward new agility. Automotive and industrial supplier Schaeffler has long recognized the effectiveness of such small entrepreneurial units, too. Obviously, the transition to New Work, which is a fundamental one, has not been happening on its own at Schaeff­ler either. Sandra Köllner, Director of New Work, reports: “Of course, there were some skeptical voices at first. It’s important that all the stakeholders openly discuss how processes and structures change. However, following a rollout phase, New Work met with very positive response at our pilot locations.” The first unit Schaeffler reorganized according to new New Work standards was special-purpose machinery engineering at the Frauenaurach location. The department moved into its redesigned offices in June 2017. “Agile collaboration among teams called for a new, open space concept,” Schaeffler’s expert Andreas Possel explains. The redesign was also a New Work project, in which employees participated as change agents. At the Schweinfurt location, in the Digital Transformation Center (DTC) in Herzogenaurach, and in the two buildings of the so-called Air Campus in Nuremberg that is home to IT staff, process specialists and logisticians from Schaeffler, New Work principles have been implemented as well.

That such pilot projects can also provide important impetus to other large corporations in the context of making the entire organization more agile is a conviction that Dr. Thorsten Lambertus, a management & engineering professional and intrapreneur expert at Fraunhofer Venture, shares as well. In an article published by the trade magazine “automotiveIT,” he said, “You have to start taking specific action somewhere to encourage the formation of germ cells that can serve as role models for others.”

It’s the teams that matter

Self-determination and self-organization as proclaimed by the New Work concept entails a high level of responsibility – which has to be given up on the one side and accepted on the other. At Upstalsboom, this give-and-take has been working well, not least because the company’s recalibrated CEO Bodo Janssen prudently moderates the process. Andreas Possel, Head of HR Strategy at Schaeffler, knows that leaders continue to be important: “However, in New Work, the emphasis of leadership shifts to other areas. Leaders more intensively represent their units and the concerns of their team members externally while concurrently creating internal room to maneuver and delegating more responsibilities to their teams.”

Obviously, teams need to have high levels of empowerment and diverse skill sets to pick up the ball of responsibility and run with it. In a two-year million-dollar project that involved 180+ teams, Google with the help of psychologists, statisticians, sociologists and engineers investigated what makes a project team work most effectively. Five key dynamics emerged from the research:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
The end is more important than the means

Outcomes are what matters most in modern teamwork. The number of hours spent at the office or the number of miles traveled on company business are becoming less and less important as proof of professional commitment. Work separates itself from presence. It’s totally immaterial whether employees use telecommuting arrangements because they might like to pick up their kids from the childcare center in the afternoon or spend some hours sitting in the sun at the local park – with a notebook on their lap. Output is the only thing that counts. Obviously, for large corporations, in which many different camps clinging to traditional concepts have to be aligned, it’s especially difficult to roll out such flexible work scheduling and employment models. New Work experts also frequently use the portmanteau “flexicurity” for a concept of labor market policy that’s designed to enable the necessary flexibility of work while guaranteeing job security. Breaking through entrenched ways of thinking also requires courage plus plenty of persuading.

At the Berlin-based innovation consultancy Partake, the firm’s founder, Dr. Hans-Jürgen Erbel­dinger, is already granting his staff an extremely large degree of freedom: from day one, all employees can personally select the topics they’d like to work on and may even initiate projects of their own. The only condition is that they find peers to support their ideas. If they manage to do so, this is regarded as an adequate quality characteristic to pursue and drive any idea, no matter what kind. If not, the project is discontinued.

Rethinking the world of work
New Work characteristics: agile and flexible interaction instead of a maze of hierarchies© Schaeffler

Obviously, such a high degree of freedom cannot be implemented in all companies as easily as in a creative agency – plus it doesn’t find favor with all employees. It’s not uncommon for project responsibility to be perceived as a burden. Some people reject the concept of proposing ideas and job content within the team or to higher organizational levels. They prefer executing the boss’s decisions.

Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do

Steve Jobs,
founder of Apple

However, modern job concepts are highly popular particularly with career starters. Flexible work schedules, higher project responsibility, the opportunity to regularly work from home or to take sabbaticals: Candidates often address these aspects as early as in job interviews and may even aggressively insist on them. 75 percent of young employees belonging to “Generation Z” (birth year 1997 and younger) are eager to assume diverse roles, according to a McKinsey report, knowing full well that this kind of job hopping requires life-long learning, which is another idea proposed by New Work mastermind Bergmann. Only continuous education and training empowers people to flexibly adjust to new working conditions and demands.

New Work makes employers “sexy”

Apropos career starters, on the job market, an agile organizational structure with a flat hierarchy and an open innovation culture has the effect of a neon sign on young people who want to make a difference. This aspect should not be underrated because in times of skills shortage especially graduates of STEM programs can increasingly pick and choose their employers. Consequently, companies have to come up with quite a bit to attract the best brains.

An appealing workspace environment is one of these attractions and New Work provides guidance in this area, too. Other important criteria include an IT structure that’s as open as possible and allows all stakeholders to access all data. Seeing, feeling, thinking, talking, acting: everything will be different in the new professional world or as New Work inventor Frithjof Bergmann puts it: “New Work means that we can experience and perceive work in completely different ways than before and have to prepare for this fundamental difference.”

Sharing and getting ahead

Continually developing one’s strengths? Broadening one’s professional and personal profile while adding greater depth to one’s network?

Rethinking the world of work© Schaeffler

These are the goals of Schaeffler’s mentoring program, which is special in that all employees can now participate and pursue their further development within the company either as an experienced mentor or as mentee with a zest for knowledge. A survey by the career portal “Monster” validates Schaeffler’s experiences.

HR expert Thomas Zahay from Monster comments: “I’m not surprised to see that 47 percent of Gen Y (birth years 1980–1999) think about mentors and that 22 percent would like to have a mentor. This generation is used to receiving feedback not just once a year, but engaging in constant exchange with their leaders and peers. Considering the special role of parents as advisers, it comes as no surprise that millennials like the idea of being supported by experienced colleagues.” Zahay would welcome programs like Schaeffler’s to catch on. “At the moment, only 23 percent have a mentor that helps them in their further personal development,” he says. Clearly, there’s room for improvement in this area.