The American social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann used the term New Work to describe a change in the world of work that more or less reverses strongly hierarchical and rigid working models. New Work is meant to enable employees to find their vocation. It is supposed to give employees more freedom and the opportunity to develop creative and innovative ideas.
It is almost characteristic that the man who fathered the term New Work died last year at the age of 90 on Whit Monday – a day commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. After all, his approach in the 1970s was very well received by the car industry (1*), at a time when the crisis at General Motors was worsening and the company had sought Bergmann‘s advice. With great success.
In more recent interviews with the F.A.Z. (a major German newspaper in Frankfurt), when asked whether the current form of „New Work“ corresponded to his original intention, Bergmann replied, „The expression ‚New Work‘ is touted by many companies today. But it‘s not about ‚wanting‘ it“.
With a stronger focus on digitalization, many companies also relied on free spaces, creative teamwork, and methods such as “design thinking” or “scrum”. New forms of workplaces have also emerged, featuring cozy sofas, healthy snacks available at all times, and so on and so forth. But this is certainly not what Bergmann meant by New Work.
As an observed misunderstanding, New Work is often seen as a magic bullet to resolve all the painful symptoms of a dysfunctional organization. The stronger the perceived pain of the organization, the more salutary the promise that New Work might be a solution for the so-called VUCA age.
But what does „The world we want to live in“ look like?
Taking a closer look at the current recruiting market, what do the professional labour market designers understand by the catchword „New Work“? On Haufe Online you can read that a study by Softgarden found that applicants want typical New Work elements such as meaningful work, autonomy, and the freedom to choose their place of work and their working hours: (1)
From the above it is clear that job creators and workers, on the one hand, have but a foggy understanding of the term and, if anything, those on the other side have a different target in mind.
New Work > Digitization > New Normal > New Work
Arguably the most disruptive phase of New Work recommenced in 2020. Changes in the economic and geopolitical realities as a result of the pandemic, the switch to sustainable and climate-neutral economic processes, and changes brought on by the virtualization of the world of work have catapulted companies far and wide into the digital world.
The New Normal was loudly proclaimed – in caps, of course, given the far-reaching consequences. Even before the spring of 2020, technology had already reshaped industries, business models, and supply chains. But the results remained very mixed and many companies failed to achieve their digital transformation goals, or worse still, were not in the least prepared when they jumped in at the deep end. This led to losses in response times, communication, business opportunities, closures – unlike most digital natives.
Many companies still require a considerable makeover to fit into the digital world and survive, even if they don’t all have to turn into Google and Co. Technological innovations will be a key instrument in getting there.
Above all, it is the technological decisions that the leaders of these and other companies now make that will determine not only their own future success, but also the success of their employees, customers, and partners.
To bring greater clarity to these developments, let‘s take a look at Gartner‘s key strategic technology trends for 2022 (2, Fig. 1): Gartner assumes that these 12 technology trends in particular will act as multipliers for digital business and innovation in the next three to five years, hence entirely changing our lives both socially and physically.
A currently hotly debated point is that technological progress has raised significant concerns about the protection of sensitive data and the environment, which can only be addressed via regulatory controls that keep abreast of innovations. Here are a few choice hashtags: #DataSovereignty, #Sustainability, #GDPR, #Security, #OpenData, #OpenSource, #AI, #SocialEngineering, #Cybersecurity
The next technological leap – disruptive digitalization
Facebook changed its name to „Meta“ to align the company with its ambitions of building the „metaverse“. The metaverse could be the next evolution of the Internet, even if it isn’t yet reality. The idea is that „augmented reality“ – the combination of augmented, virtual and mixed reality – will become a key medium for social and business activities.
The metaverse cannot be identified as a unique product, technology, or service. A more intriguing question might be: what might the metaverse become? If the Internet eventually evolves into the metaverse, it could be the next big computing platform. If the concept can be implemented, it is expected to change society and industry as much as did the mobile phone on its introduction.
We would be looking at a persistent, virtual universe in which users can interact with each other as digital avatars. And all this is being created by, of all things, one of the biggest and most controversial companies in the world. The metaverse is not yet a reality. It is certainly too early to think about it all too seriously or even adopt this development into corporate strategy, or consider it in terms of HR, health management, hiring, cost factors, etc…. So, let‘s relax and wait to see how things continue to develop, right?
But how come Microsoft is pronouncing how it will revolutionize New Work? Making things more personal, more collaborative, and more fun, Microsoft is bringing the element of collaboration to the metaverse with its Mesh for Teams – Microsoft’s announcement of 2 November 2021. The company plans to integrate the metaverse into Teams in the first half of 2022 where Mesh for Teams integrates the mixed reality features of Microsoft Mesh with the productivity tools of Microsoft Teams. Microsoft goes on to say that participants will be able to communicate via their facial expressions even when they are not visible in live video. The use of artificial intelligence and improved sensor technology will also be able to reflect head movements and facial expressions in the course of further development. Mesh for Teams will hence make online and hybrid meetings more personal, more fun, and more productive. The new features will also open the door to permanently available digital worlds where people come together to communicate and collaborate in person. (3, Fig. 2)
Has the revolution in the world of work been rung in now? Is this New Work?
Technology and digitalization have already changed our lives, in many ways making them more efficient and convenient. Technology is also a key driver in enabling behavioural change, especially in terms of increasing productivity and supporting active lifestyles through health apps, etc.
What’s more, human interaction can be enriched via technology-based insights into our behaviour, where behavioural scientists can help provide answers to pressing questions about the risks of increasing digitalization – such as the cost of monitoring and quantifying every aspect of our personal lives, how this affects our well-being, whether we still feel like autonomous beings when technology takes over so many of our daily tasks, and the consequences of the digital footprints we leave behind.
What impact will this have on our working worlds? Will people in the world of work feel more disconnected as human interaction increasingly shifts from the physical to the virtual? Whether digitization of the physical worlds in its upcoming form will be a curse or a cure for New Work depends to a large extent on whether policy makers succeed in adequately defining the limits of the use of technologies, but also on what we – as employees and employers – really want from it in the context of our working lives.
New Work is focused on people – without hierarchies, without a differentiation of roles or areas of responsibility – using their full power and creativity at work.
What needs to be collectively understood is that companies need to change their organizational and management structures and the technologies they use in face of the current market pressures and continuing developments on a global and local level.
This requires knowledge and an openness to solutions and ideas outside the traditional organizational structures, to expand the entrepreneurial field of action and experimentation, and to find answers and one‘s own position for today‘s and future challenges.
It means deciding not to jump on the next band wagon in response to all the hype and not wave the next salvation-bringing flag, as Microsoft is doing, for example, in claiming that its own Mesh product is the latest incarnation of New Work.
For those who rely on security and scaling alone, let it be said that absolute predictability – no matter what it is about – will not be possible, despite ever more sophisticated technologies. Data is useless without the corresponding algorithms needed to analyze and correlate it. Trained systems such as neural networks are only as good as the data on which they have been trained. The result can be murky, for example, if such data is created involving human bias. This can lead to a distorted system.
The core of New Work is not based on the methods and technologies used but is instead determined by our human (pre)disposition towards it, first and foremost by our willingness and motivation to embrace it. Because what one “really wants” is a deeply human question, not a technological issue.
Let me finish by saying that to continue the debate on New Work, we need to be clearly aware of the decisive characteristics and possibilities of humanity vs. technology; the desired output of considering the human vs. technological balance needs to be determined by the respective company, and the goal of preserving the physical and mental health of people working in the virtual world must be the focus of corporate strategy.
1 * the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles is comparable to the descent of the New Work spirit upon the car industry, with Whit Monday marking the anniversary of Bergmann‘s death. It was a groundbreaking concept at the time.
3. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/mesh and https://news.microsoft.com/innovation-stories/mesh-for-microsoft-teams/
For more background information on New Work and VUCA, please see my first article: https://the-report.cloud/the-new-way-of-life
COO of Cloudical