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New Work

Buzzword with little substance or inspiring cosmos?

It depends on the angle. If you Google „new work,“ you might think the whole world is talking about this new form of work: today, on the twelfth of June, there are 159 million hits in 0.58 seconds. More than a few, I would say. If you come out on the other side of the new work self-production bubble, then the world looks completely different. In the reality of the smallest, small and medium-sized businesses, this concept wave has not yet arrived. New what? How, are salaries being made transparent? Or determined by the teams themselves? Or are the bosses being elected? Where does this happen?

A more sensible and constructive handling of pending innovations lies somewhere between the Scylla of hype and the Charybdis of ignorance. Because, of course, the pending large automatization wave will affect everyone, even those who have not yet heard of new work and related terms like work 4.0, agility, business democracy, etc. Ignorance doesn’t protect against economic changes. So a bit of an explanation might be helpful. The new work concepts, regardless of what they are called, have different dimensions. Here is a short overview, without making a claim of completeness.

New work: individual dimension

It begins with individuals. Namely, in different ways. Workers have different concerns than the management team. But both sides are facing not-inconsiderable challenges: new work always means, more or less, strong authorization of the employees to work independently and to be able to make a certain amount of decisions themselves – and at some point, to be expected to. That has consequences for both sides. The management team has to learn to let go of top-down control, from the small processes to the micro management of daily work. That requires a not-inconsiderable measure of trust in the competencies and goodwill of the employees. That – of course – will not always be rewarded. Reversed, this means self-organization on the side of the employees, and the acceptance of new responsibilities, being ready to make mistakes and to stand up for them. And not pushing responsibility onto the boss any more.

For both sides, the change to the working work means an obvious change with planning and the false security attached to it. Psychologically, this is called ambiguity intolerance. If markets are always changing more and more quickly, and branches of the business or even entire business models become obsolete from day to day, if customers quickly become fewer and providers change more often, if unexpected competitors emerge from nothing then the ability to bear this insecurity and remain able to handle it is required.

Insight and inner attitude are just as important for management teams and employees, now that communication is becoming more important because processes are not as strict as they were before. And that it would then make no sense and be completely dysfunctional to keep wanting to work in old top-down structures and cultures. The understanding then arises that management becomes fluid in such environments: today in management, tomorrow somewhere else, the day after tomorrow in management again, and so on.

Time for something new

New Work – how can constructive dealing with changes be successful?

New work: methodical dimension

That is the crux of the matter: new work forms are often reduced to self-organized and agile methods. One of the best-known is indisputably (link in German) Scrum. There are no principle problems with methods like this – apart from the conception that introducing new “tools” will be enough. Those who have blundered into this trap always have enough to learn. Because the toolbox of new work is perfectly adequate and demanding.

It makes a fundamental difference whether individual variable remuneration is a part of the salary system that is connected with such individual goal agreements, or if there is still a thirteenth monthly income for everyone if the previously arranged mutual goals of the business are reached. Here at the latest, it can become clear that this is not simply done with the implementation of a new instrument.

Or if the team manager, department manager or area manager should no longer make an important decision alone, but rather, the employees whom the decision concerns are also included – by consent (as an alternative to consensus). That means: an idea, a suggestion or whatever will be carried out, as long as no one “has a serious objection”. Suffice to say that this method cannot just be implemented and then run flawlessly.

New work: organizational dimension

Organizations that have left old working forms behind them and are now operating as representatives of new work also differentiate in their organizational dimension. They obviously have other structural and process organizations. That can then be shown in an organigram as the well-known fir tree or pyramid diagram. Either the pyramid is inverted, like the Volksbank Heilbronn did, for example, after they got rid of all the hierarchy levels except for the legally required board of directors on January 1st, 2011. Or the organigram could show some sort of circle.

Those who have at some point snapped up new work might have already heard of organizational models like sociocracy or (link in German) holacracy. Because holacracy has gone through a great grotesque hype over the past few years that could in no way be justified with demonstrable, empirically-supported successes. Unlike in the fuddy-duddy sociocracy scene, the almost identical approach is sold as “revolutionary system management for a volatile world”. But what are the differences and the advantages and disadvantages of these closely related organization models?

What is even less known is the systematic-kinetic framework of the viable system model, developed by the British economist and founder of the management cybernetics Stafford Beer. He examined, to put it shortly, what the similarities of different living systems are. And from that he developed the VSM, which in comparison to sociocracy or holacracy, has no requirements as to the exact type of meeting that should be carried out or how to make decisions (as in the aforementioned sociocratic consent). It instead offers an extremely intelligent approach to be able to understand which structural features organizations need in order to be viable long-term on the highest abstraction level.

New work: cultural dimension

The previous dimensions should have clarified that new work requires completely different work culture and organizational culture than have previously been practiced. This might be more pointedly expressed with an applicable organizational metaphor: imagine the system as a well-oiled machine or a living organism. Of course, there are a huge range of other metaphors, as the British-Canadian organizational theorist shows in his standard work “Images of Organization”. But the mentioned pole pair points to different cultural approaches quickly and colorfully.

With the machine model, the Taylor-esque design features are still connected to the work, above all the separation of thoughts and actions, planning and execution. This separation then leads inevitably to a command-and-control culture with a strong inner logic, characterized by a misanthropic idea of man that finds its impression in the theoretical model of the Homo economicus. The employees are, to put it bluntly, lazy and motivated by their own advantage and have to be extrinsically motivated to work. So we close the circle to the connected instruments like individual bonuses.

We find a completely different culture in organizations whose members consider themselves a living organism. Like how there is no CEO in our brain that instructs us as to what data we should take on board and process, different realizations of new work lead to cultural features that are characterized far more strongly by self-organization, trust and co-creation. Which expresses itself in the selection of corresponding instruments and methods, like a collective bonus.

From a sketch to a 3D film in HD

Because everything that has just been mentioned is just a sketch with thick strokes. Behind the term “new work” an entire cosmos of the mentioned dimensions in hidden. There is not a concrete new work, but rather a whole variety of different manifestations that have to be designed to suit each organization. There are a heap of books, articles and films that open up the new work world bit by bit. When you get on the path to make wisdom your own, then the long journey has begun with the first step.


New Work Hub Berlin, 8th July 2017

If you are interested in the field of new work, then you can explore the advantages and disadvantages in a one-day interactive workshop with Dr. Andreas Zeuch. There, the dimensions introduced here will be further deepened – on the foundation of an initial business simulation that will be experienced in three difference structural organizations.


Dr. Andreas Zeuch is a freelance consultant, trainer, speaker and author. He facilitates participation and democracy in organizations.

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