After the Face Mask – the Vaccine
By Ralf Pichler and Jan Pfeifer
At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the option of working from home helped many companies to get over the initial shock. But working flexibly means more than just opening your laptop at home and holding video conferences for hours on end. New Work needs a holistic concept that not only makes the working environment more flexible, but also establishes a new work culture and new rules and methods of cooperation.
Before too much longer, employees may find they have a legal right to a flexible workplace. At the very least, Federal Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil is planning a new law that will obligate companies to allow their employees to work from home – if that is what they want and the requirements of the workplace permit. Employers, however, reject a possible law of this nature as outdated. Why? After COVID-19, the world of work will not be the same. New Work is becoming an absolute must in companies and public administration. The current crisis has been especially effective in demonstrating that those who create a flexible and agile working environment and have the right tools at their disposal can adapt to new conditions, requirements, and wishes of employees and customers at any time, come what may. And increasing digitalization will only accelerate this development.
New Work is far more than just working from home
What has happened to cause employers and, indeed, even many employees to seemingly reject Hubertus Heil’s proposal – even though its underlying principles have been their salvation during an unprecedent crisis? It is because a flexible workplace is not the equivalent of New Work! For most companies, working from home was “forced” upon them if they wanted to continue working productively at all. The companies were in survival mode, comparable to the masks that we all have to wear at the moment: they provide at least some protection against the risk of infection, but they are uncomfortable, and nobody wants to have to wear them permanently.
What employees and employers initially experienced during the crisis, however, had little to do with a true New Work concept. During the second phase, companies began looking for ways to improve virtual collaboration. Much more than just having the right laptop, a quiet working environment, or wearing the right outfit during video conferences is involved. How can we prevent a team from falling apart and team spirit from evaporating into thin air? How can virtual teams even be staffed and managed over the long term? Or what is the ideal constellation for my team so that the customers do not suffer? The objective during this phase was to find a medicine that would alleviate the symptoms.
Making work flexible and agile
The next phase of continuing to work flexibly and agilely in a digitalized world after the crisis, however, will require a vaccine. It will mean seizing the opportunity to make work flexible and to tailor its structures to accommodate the living and working conditions of employees as well as the demands of companies. This vaccine is a holistic New Work approach that will require everyone involved to rethink previous ideas and attitudes. More trust and saying farewell to expectations of constant physical presence on the part of companies – just because people are sitting at their desks in their offices does not mean they are actually working productively. And employees must grasp New Work as a genuine alternative that will enable them to work more flexibly, not as a chance to gain more free time.
Here at Detecon, we have been advising companies during their journey to a flexible organization for a decade. And we have gradually implemented a concept designed for our specific needs in our own operations. Employees who want to work from home and can do so effectively may exercise the option freely. The only requirement is its suitability for accomplishing their current task. We have redesigned our office structures to provide rooms that meet the needs of the immediate task: for project meetings, creative workshops, events, concentration on the job at hand, or even just for informal encounters with colleagues.
The four faces of New Work
For us and the companies we have been able to advise in this field, the New Work approach is nothing other than the strategic response to today’s challenges and dynamic market requirements. And this approach is a holistic one that goes far beyond spatial aspects. We distinguish four ingredients for New Work.
How do I develop a culture that sees employees constantly questioning their attitudes to digital transformation and reflecting on their thought and behavior patterns? What opportunities do I offer to enhance the digital and technological competence of my employees?
How do I create a working environment that encourages a high-performance culture?
What technologies and platforms do I need to secure the best possible design of the interface between human and machine and for optimal communication and collaboration with internal and external partners?
- Principles & Regulations
What rules and methods of cooperation strengthen virtual and physical collaboration? What leadership principles do I need?
An individual and flexible approach to work of this type promotes creativity and facilitates collaboration and communication – factors that have been proven to affect turnover, employer attractiveness, and employee satisfaction positively and reduce the fluctuation rate. And what company would not like to benefit from these New Work effects?
New Work as a catalyst for digitalization
So both sides – employees and employers – should examine and assess the discussion about the future of work independently of the coronavirus crisis. No company expects its employees to sit at a home desk, surrounded by their children and all the other distractions, and still work productively even in the New Normal. But the current crisis and the new forms of work it has forced upon us should be viewed as a chance to devote more thought to New Work concepts. To this end, management needs to sit down with employees and together they should examine what advantages flexible and agile working can have for both sides. After all, a New Work concept imposed from on high does not make anyone happy in the long term – whether companies or employees.
A law regulating working from home has nothing to do with romanticism and early capitalism, back pain, improvisation, or a stress trap. It is instead a piece of the puzzle that must be completed in a holistic New Work approach. And this in turn will be a catalyst for digitalization and the right course on the road to reconciliation of life and work in a changed world.