10 Attributes of New Work

November 18, 2020

The term ‘New Work’ has been trending quite a lot in the last ten years, and perhaps some New Work principles have already found their way into your work.  There are employees whose working lives have been reshaped by this approach, and for others, New Work remains something they can only dream of. In general, we know what this catchy phrase means, yet how many of us could explain how it actually works? That proves to be challenging since these two simple words stand for a broad, revolutionary concept to transform the way we work. When was the term ‘New Work’ first coined? Perhaps 10 years ago, when it first started trending? We have to go back even further than that, back to the late 70s, when this term originated to describe the budding development of a brand new work movement. 

New Work – What does it actually mean?

For the past several years, a structural transformation in Western society has become noticeable. The driving forces behind these fundamental changes are: globalization, demographical shifts, digitalization and cultural changes. It’s an omnipresent transformation permeating all aspects of life. If these changes weren’t occurring, the digital nomad would still be just a star in a science fiction movie, and the flexible workspace a laboratory in the futuristic military novel Old Man’s War. The impact of these changes, especially regarding our working lives, is substantial. The traditional working standards governing workspaces, hours and organization will soon become obsolete. They are being superseded by a reassessment of the manner in which we work, the structures we work in, and what we require from our work. New Work embraces a fundamental and sustainable transformation of the working world. The term New Work can also be understood as an umbrella term for future-oriented, meaningful work in the digital age – in other words, as a considerable component of Work 4.0.  It’s an eclectic, complex and multi-faceted term, leaving open plenty of room for interpretation-it simply can’t be confined to a single definition.

“Some of the most important innovations don’t come from new technologies, but from new ways of working together and new organizational design patterns made possible by these technologies”.  - Thomas W. Malone

New Work & The End of Old Working Methods 

The phenomenal movement can be traced back to its Austrian-American founder, Frithjof Bergmann, a social philosopher whose research focused on people and their work environments with a goal towards ‘gainful employment’. In the late 1970s, driven by the idea to create new working principles as a counterpart to the classical capitalism which he viewed critically, Bergmann developed the concept of New Work. He held the view that the existing job system would bottom out due to increasing automation on the job market. Simultaneously, this would provide the opportunity for people to liberate themselves from wage labor. With a sentiment along the lines of there’s nothing else that can take away your freedom like work, he addressed the central issue of what people really, truly want in their work and from their work. What special skills do they want to contribute? What desires and hopes do they have? At a time when rigid hierarchies, established chains of command, regimented task delegation and fixed working hours dominated the working world, Bergmann introduced a game-changing perspective. His research culminated in the fundamental values of his New Work model: independence, freedom, and participation in community. In his Centers for New Work, Bergmann collaborated with employees to develop ways for them to incorporate these values into their working lives.  

In an interview at the NWX18 Conference on the topic ‘New Work, New Culture’, Bergmann spoke of his work with an assembly line worker in Flint, one of Michigan’s motor cities. The man began to delve deeply into the fundamentals of the New Work concept, embarking on a trip of self-discovery. As he emerged from his journey, he gave up his job on the assembly line to become the company’s Yoga instructor.

Bergmann’s approach continues to be the essential core of the contemporary New Work model.

10 New Work Attributes:

1. Digitalization

  • Working structure and communication practices incorporate digital transformation strategies.  

2. Work-Life Integration

  • Erosion of boundaries between private and professional life in regard to both working locations and hours. 

3. Flexibility

  • Workplace (co-working & flexible workspaces, working from home, remote work, digital nomads)
  • Working hours (goodbye 9 to 5 job!)
  • Organizational structure (project-based work in mixed, multidisciplinary teams, networking, self-employed workers, smart working, job rotation, job sharing) 

4. Flat Hierarchy

  • Holacracy, decentralizing management: trust, appreciation and authority spread throughout teams (superiors are coaches)
  • Streamlined decision-making processes, taking action promptly
  • Support empowerment of employees to boost motivation and desire for responsibility
  • Promote an appreciation culture 

5. Individuality

  • Foster personal development by encouraging self-determined actions and creative freedom
  • Generate professional fulfilment with meaningful tasks

6. Agility

  • Agile structures and processes in order to react rapidly and flexibly to changes
  • Implement agile methods for project management, project development and process optimization (Kanban, Scrum, design thinking, design sprints) 

7. Employee Well-being Programs

  • Ensure wellness and productivity
  • Strive for a physical and mental balance to offset work-related stress (preventative health care measures such as Yoga, meditation courses or massages covered by the employer)
  • Healthy food options at the workplace 

8. Talent Scouting

  • Recruit talent, creatives, specialists and skilled all-rounders when there is a shortage of qualified professionals
  • Personnel management and employer branding holds importance

 9. Diversity

  • Promote a culture of inclusion and diversity in all forms - age, gender, nationality, cultural background, etc. (a defining factor for resilience and innovative capability) 

10. Open Innovation

  • Collaborative development of innovative products and services with customers, partners and subcontractors
  • Enhance quality and broaden the innovative spectrum

If some of these New Work attributes have already become a part of your daily working life, then you’re certainly among the early birds. Yet just a few blocks away from the bustling start-ups it becomes evident that, for much of the working world, extensive transformations are still yet to come.