New Work: How does the model of work change our working lives? - an interview with Prof. Dr. Rainer Zeichhardt

© Prof. Dr. Rainer Zeichhardt

“New Work is more than embellished wage labour. It is the saving grace.” - upon meeting Prof. Dr. Rainer Zeichhardt for the interview about New Work, he quotes Frithjof Bergmann directly, the forefather of the movement. As Professor of Business Administration with a focus on personnel management and leadership as well as Vice Chancellor of Innovation and Digitalisation at the BSP Berlin (Business & Law School), Zeichhardt has been researching and teaching this topic for over ten years. 

And that much is clear: New Work has arrived in Berlin and is shaping the way we live and work like never before. The term is not only a trend, but also in fact describes a profound transformation that is changing the world of work in Berlin. As a melting pot of creativity and innovation, our city serves as a microcosmic laboratory for this transformation - accompanied by science and practice. 

Prof. Dr. Zeichhardt is very active in this transformation. He is not only a science ambassador of the Berlin Brain City campaign, but also part of a project at the Mittelstand-Digital Innovation Hubs, which is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. The team concerns itself with digital transformation. A transfer of knowledge takes place between companies, science and politics in workshops, interviews and publications. Zeichhardt’s focus is on how digitalisation changes in view of corporate cultures, communication and management behaviour from a human perspective.

Today, we will be taking a look at the New Work phenomenon with him. What is New Work? What impact does New Work have on us? How does New Work change our lives? And what developments can we expect in the future? Read for yourself.

What is New Work? 

That is a good question. The term is currently a label that people like to throw around. But when we take a closer look, New Work is understood differently everywhere. We have devoted ourselves heavily to this topic. On the one hand, the term comprises mediated working, e.g. in home office through project management and communication tools, on the other hand, it is about self-determined working, e.g. the organisation of a work place and working hours. We learn a lot about this from the start-ups, digital units and hubs of Berlin. However, this interpretation of the term only affects careers that work with knowledge, and not so much jobs in shift operation or service industries. 

But if we cast more light on this topic, we then come time and time again back to the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, the forefather of the New Work movement. According to Bergmann it concerns not only wage labour, but also what people really, really want – he repeats ‘really’ twice, very consciously. It is about work as an opportunity for self-realisation - about finding fulfilment and meaningful work (purpose-driven). This interpretation of New Work is broad-ranging, because it enables a very individual examination of one’s own occupation and personal values

What experiences do you have with New Work?

I could already gather experiences from different perspectives. In my work as a professor at a college, I have freedoms in space in and time to complete a part of my work - among other things, when I publish or do conceptual work. 

Furthermore, when researching and teaching, I come into contact with New Work via digital festivals, such as re:publica or Hub Berlin for example. I organise workshops and take part in conferences, in which an exciting interdisciplinary knowledge transfer to new forms of organisations and working takes place. I am always in exchange with colleagues - a constant shift between practice and theory

In addition, I am in close exchange with our students. Because I participate in these through final papers, project-based phases of study and internships, I gain valuable insights in to many different companies in Berlin and their concepts. The topic of New Work often takes centre stage. Just recently, I supervised papers on ‘Trust in virtual contexts’ and ‘Mindful Leadership: Awareness and Management’. Very exciting.

What actually makes New Work different from ‘Old Work’?

New Work has actually existed for a long time and the term Old Work has never existed. The topic dates back to the First Industrial Revolution. What is most striking, however, is understanding the mindset shift from old to new ways of thinking when it comes to labour organisations, understanding leadership, what it means to be a human being and even what gives meaning and purpose. New Work challenges a rigid understanding of organisations, traditional ideas concerning what it means to be a human being and hierarchical leadership concepts.

How does New Work impact me as a skilled employee? 

New Work very clearly supports personal development. Work without boundaries reinforces individual responsibility, empowerment and self-image. In the best-case scenario, New Work leads to greater inner contentment. However, it is important for me to say that the concept is not cut out for everyone. It is one option, one alternative.

I do not want to rate New Work. It is not a better concept, but rather a different or additional one. Many people do not want to work free from space and time constraints at all or even want clear instructions and structures, in order to be able to work successfully. Others, on the other hand, do not want to realise their full potential in a career, but rather outside of work. All basic approaches have their opportunities and limits. 

How do I recognise when a company is true to the concept of New Work and does not simply use it as a buzzword in recruiting?

Indeed, people readily use the term New Work as a label. When gaining greater insight into a company, you should clearly differentiate between the things that are posted on social media or are printed in glossy brochures and the reality. A football table, the company bicycle, free beer or the fruit basket are not guarantees of New Work. New Work should be deeply anchored in the culture of a company. So, thoroughly engage with the company and try to gain holistic insights into the respective company culture. 

The following exemplary questions can be useful for this: What rules are there concerning home office and hybrid working? Do specific organisation models exist, i.e. a holacracy? Are there concrete frameworks for agile work, such as Scrum for example? Do guidelines exist for self-organised projects or guiding principles on cooperation? If you do come across things of this nature, you can conclude that the organisation is more deeply concerned with New Work. 

In the best-case scenario, establish direct contact with the company. Or visit a company careers fair or an open day andask your questions there. Follow the company via LinkedIn and Xing – also via the activities of the employees. Network generally with peoplewho already work at the company and ask about their personal experiences. If you are invited to a job interviewinquire about the concrete dealings with New Work. Those are all opportunities to find out more.

What must I prepare myself for if I accept a job at a company with New Work?

Prepare yourself to be taken out of your comfort zone. Despite home office and more flexible time management, New Work is very demanding in practice. You need the right mindset, flexibility and personal responsibility. When traditional approaches meet New Work approaches, there is always the potential for conflict. Prepare yourself for the fact that not every person is an advocate of the movement. Trust the process and also learn to understand the other side. 

Are there current trend in the area of New Work, that are of interest to me as a skilled employee?

Yes, we observe new organisation models. The role-based model of leadership which breaks up traditional hierarchies - also known as holacracy - is a part of this trend for example. People organise themselves in to roles according to specific themes and come together in circles to bring their expertise into discussions. A classic hierarchy is therefore completely irrelevant, as the specific roles of the employees are more important.

Another topic is New Pay. New Pay is concerned with how payment systems can change. For example, it will become more possible to negotiate pay individually - oriented towards an overall budget, which is able to be accessed by the company’s community. There is full transparency concerning how much people earn. 

But the four day week and workcation are also hot topics in the discussion. A shorter working week and the free choice of workplace are regarded highly by younger employees. 

Which companies in Berlin have already successfully integrated New Work? 

Next, I would like to reference almost all start-ups in Berlin which are intensively grappling with the topic of hybrid working and remote work in an exemplary manner. Here attractive and successful concepts emerge in which New Work is implemented time and time again. 

But there are also modern developments in established companies. An example is the health insurance company AOK. The company has remodelled an entire department at the company headquarters in Berlin. The classic workstations have been removed and the atmosphere resembles that of a boutique hotel with open kitchens, creative corners, opportunities to withdraw from the working day to relax and a room for group work. What is interesting is that a new working atmosphere is built up and tested alongside the traditional atmosphere. 

Moreover, the consulting firm HRpepper opened up the classic hierarchies through the Change Project and organised it into a role-based leadership model instead. But many small and medium-sized companies in Berlin (SME) are also currently testing the four day week, without taking up New Work as their cause. In addition the compatibility of family and work is a central concern in the SMEs - an important aspect of New Work. 

How would you compare New Work in Berlin versus New Work internationally?

Berlin offers many opportunities. The city is attractive for top talents from across the globe. Berlin is a melting pot for progressive ideas. The mixture of interculturality, interdisciplinarity and intergenerationality paves the way for New Work. Many people want to successfully combine work and living. Therefore the city reacts with digital opportunities and offers. Berlin is playing in an international league with the world’s big metropolises.

Where do you see the topic of New Work in five years from now?

The topic of hybrid work will play an even greater role. Working online or offline is easily definable, but working in hybrid worlds poses particular challenges. For this reason, it is important to test further concepts. How can we work efficiently both in home office and face to face? That is a future concern. Just like the developments surrounding the topic of artificial intelligence. 

How does artificial intelligence change the way we work together? What activities are taken over by machines, which by us humans? What will the interaction between human and machine look like? What really meaningful tasks can we as humans adopt, if the burden of routine tasks is removed by machines? I am certain that we will have more answers to these questions in the next five years. 

Many thanks for your time, Prof. Dr Zeichhardt.

Are you interested in the topic of New Work? Then have a browse through Prof. Dr. Zeichhardt’s personal list of links! You can find these listed below.