New Work and the European transformation
Can a 40-year-old idea from the US rustbelt help the European economy transform itself – while giving workers ‘what we really really want’?
First off, a disclaimer: If you don’t work in Germany or speak German, you can be forgiven for not having heard the term New Work. The phrase and the philosophy behind it has barely been discovered by the English-speaking world, although it began life in a car factory in Michigan. But even if New Work sounds rather new to you, its guiding principles probably are not.
Often grouped together as ‘new ways of working’, these principles tell us work in the future will be more flexible in terms of time and place. They promise to enable employees at every level of an organization to participate more in decision making while at the same time requiring a greater level of responsibility from each individual.
There is also a somewhat mystical component of purpose or meaning in future work: at times it is the employee who should find purpose in her work, at other times it is the company itself that should seek meaning by including social or environmental values in its goals and ways of doing business.
Over six thousand kilometers separate Flint, Michigan and Wolfsburg, Germany – but they are connected by the industry at the core of their economy. Both are car towns where most people living there somehow work for the automobile industry. Both are home to the largest car company in their respective market, General Motors and Volkswagen.
Image: Flint, Michigan.
Both Flint and Wolfsburg have faced a seismic challenge, one that threatened the entire industry, its workforce and the companies that supply it. The father of New Work, Frithjof Bergmann, wrote of the crisis in Flint in the early 1980s:
Frithjof Bergmann, intellectual father of New Work
His solution: reduce the number of working hours by half. That way twice the number of workers would stay employed. With the rest of the time remaining, workers could spend time pursuing the work they ‘really, really wanted’ and providing for themselves. At the time, his ideas were largely ignored, until they were rediscovered in Germany in the early 2000s.
According to the Zukunftsinstitut, a trend-spotting organization in Germany, New Work is one of 11 megatrends that will define the future of society, work and living. New Work is a structural change brought about by digitization, globalization and artificial intelligence. This shift offers companies and employees opportunities to fundamentally rethink how, where and when work happens and how it is organized.
The reason for rethinking work are probably obvious to most of us: As our work and life become more and more blurred and harder to tell apart, fewer people have what used to be known as a ‘normal’ career.
While companies are already starting to feel the shortage of skilled workers, younger generations - Millennials and Generation Z - recognize that all the promises of eternal economic growth that their parents experienced are now hollow, and are increasingly on the lookout for work that is meaningful, value-driven and which has a positive impact on the environment and society.
This hunt for talents is already being felt by German companies quite substantially, and given the demographic patterns (fewer births than deaths), it becomes clear that this trend will only increase over time.
Freedom and flexibility
Working from home and at flexible times
Creating spaces and room for mistakes
Connecting and cooperating regardless of experience level
Developing models of self-organization
Creating individual and collective ownership of budgets
Offering financial participation models
Work that employees really really want to do
Sustainability plays a role in decision making
Playing an active, positive role in the region
Germany and Europe are facing a fundamental transformation driven by digitalization and the need for climate neutrality. The World Economic Forum refers to a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – marked by networking and digitalization, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.
While companies streamline their structures to become more competitive, workers themselves are asking themselves how and where they want to work, and what value work has in their lives.
What was previously restricted to a privileged minority is now almost considered standard practice. Working from home, remote work, job sharing and coworking are key concepts in the new world of work. Also not to be overlooked is “purpose”, which gives work greater meaning.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO conducted a survey on work during the Covid-19 pandemic and how companies are adapting to a 'new normal' afterwards. Their conclusion was that German companies are conducting a “large-scale experiment into the digitization of work and collaboration”.
About 61% of the respondents said that most employees would be able to work remotely within the country, up from 17% before the pandemic. Another 20% said that it is likely that their company will adopt a remote work policy in the next three years.
The conclusion is that most office workers already have or will soon have the option to work from home in Germany. This is a monumental change from the dominant office culture in Germany and is likely to have profound effects on working methods and organizational structures, but also on other factors such as office space in urban areas.
To claim that these ideas, once implemented, will have a profound impact on our society is putting it lightly. Hybrid and remote arrangements can free up massive tracts of real estate in our cramped cities. Flexible schedules will take some strain off of overfull subways and city buses during rush hour and make it easier to juggle family and career.
Purpose-driven companies will likely be more apt to design, produce and sell products and services in a more sustainable, forward-looking manner, to make a contribution to society and be prepared for an uncertain future.
Hybrid work options are nothing new for most working in design today. Design studios often work with clients in remote cities, while manufacturing facilities and material production sites are frequently located where costs are lowest.
Yet the changes to urban environments, which will open up what was previous office space for other uses, will be of great interest to designers working in these markets. It opens up an entire range of questioning for the curious observer: how can we repurpose empty offices to accommodate those seeking refuge in Western Europe? Are there ways to use the space for automated, small-scale manufacturing?
For designers, what New Work offers most of all are enormous opportunities to work. Ways of working and organization structures must be reconsidered in a people-centered, inclusive process. Working from home will pose big challenges in need of solutions, from interior design to digital platforms.
And finally: the transition itself will need to be designed, taking into account a staggering number of stakeholders and eventualities.
If all that is not a job for designers, what is?