The challenges and opportunities presented by the New Work philosophy
Welcome to VUKA and the brave new world of tomorrow. Job profile: the ideal candidate masters volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in their everyday work – and can expect more to come! In the continuously accelerating context of Working World X.0, the new control panel is going digital, agile, and flexible, and is adopting the New Work paradigm. As such, it’s an indispensable currency of the transformation process. New professions, organizational models, or even virtual office landscapes: The theoretical future of work appears to be dynamic, agile, and digital. We seem to be on the cusp of a transition from modern to post- and meta-modern organizations. The principles of industrialization are about to run out of steam and companies are trying to respond to current demands by becoming adaptable, resilient, and innovative. Steinbeis expert Daniel Müller-Rang shows the options available to companies to make a success of this process.
How can we design a world of work that allows people, companies, and technology to interact in the best possible way? Some believe there is no alternative but to become flexible and agile, while others fear that increasing digitalization spells an age of alienation and the demise of human interaction when it comes to social identity and the processes of mutual interaction. Do human beings, self-realization, and vocation still lie at the heart of work processes, or do the extrinsic structures of opportunity – and the demands these place on us – lie at the crux, or perhaps the drive to maximize economic efficiency by raising the tempo? And how can organizations engender trust among employees and even learn how to cope step by step with agile disappointment? The aspect of learning, creating a desire to learn, responsibility, and a commitment to collaboration in digital fields of learning – potentially the catalysts of an emerging transformation – are tremendously important.
This also raises a question regarding successful virtual leadership and the conditions that are required for the inception of collaboration: What can be done to shape relationships in a digital format and make collaboration dependable? What is crucial is that people are taken on the journey, and their relationship with digital technology. Is there, as it seems, really no alternative to digital transformation, or is this bogus consensus born of convenience and an unwillingness to pose critical questions?
Neuropsychology and remote working
To acquire an image of the danger posed by the toxic elements of endeavors to achieve new transformation, we first need to look at the remoteness fueled by digital work forms, particularly from the perspective of neuropsychology. When social or collegial aspects of working in teams – and thus physical encounters – fade into the background, factors relating to appreciation, trust, attention, and recognition become all the more important and must be actively transposed to the new forms of interaction, with plenty of sensitivity. Alternatively, corresponding experiential spaces must be created for this. Emotional resonance is an important factor when it comes to cooperation based on trust, because it conveys appreciation and recognition. Without regular exchange when people work from home, employees increasingly feel socially isolated, eroding their attachment to the company and raising their likelihood of switching jobs. Managers are then called upon to bolster team spirit, whether through online team events, joint coffee breaks, or regular staff meetings. Social factors must not be forgotten and should be actively worked on. Only in this way can the limbic system – the area of our brains that deals with emotions – continue to receive calming stimuli. There is a difference in neuropsychological terms between meeting someone in person and seeing them on a screen, because attachment feeds on encounter. A crucial role in this is played by neuromodulators and oxytocin (also known as the bonding hormone). Oxytocin has a stabilizing effect on performance and relationships, and it plays a crucial role in job satisfaction and achieving goals with others. Its impact is “pro-social,” so it promotes social interaction and, at least under certain conditions, can have the effect of reinforcing trust. Companies and managers must rethink this more consciously under virtual working conditions.
Personality types and New Work compatibility
A world of work that is ambiguous, complex, and strongly based on agility and employee empowerment requires certain things that come more easily to some people, whereas others need more support and time to learn. People with a high level of ambiguity tolerance are at an advantage in situations when it is acceptable to think more openly and there are fewer distinctions between right and wrong. They may even feel motivated by the unknown. Personality factors such as extraversion, being open to new things, and sharing emotions have a positive correlative influence on the context of New Work requirements. They also shape them positively. Factors such as intelligence, being able to identify with others, and company affiliation also have an effect on this. People with low levels of ambiguity tolerance, however, feel threatened by uncertainty, vagueness, and hard-to-fathom situations. As a result, they attempt to avoid them. Introverted personality types may therefore run the risk of being separated from the process of identifying with others, or social cohesion with colleagues, which may call into question the aforementioned concept of life, as well as work motivation and the identification it gives rise to, and in some cases this can be extremely pronounced. Deprived of the daily social rituals that shape identity, emotional people who are introverted are more likely to have difficulty adjusting to the new world and react to demands with a sense of anxiety and stress. Factors that favor such developments must be taken into account by companies and avoided if they want to embrace human diversity. Another crucial aspect of this is psychological safety. When people can be themselves and don’t have to worry about raising their voices or asking questions, everyone’s an important step closer to becoming a fearless organization.
The New Work philosophy – a reality check
The New Work paradigm is not only increasingly calling into question traditional and proven work structures, but as flexibility improves and people assume responsibility by focusing more on themselves, working independently and identifying with one’s own work are also placed on a new pedestal. The image of human nature is in a state of upheaval, emerging in a new form as it shifts from the tendency to seek self-realization, toward a search for meaning in one’s existence through work. For many, a reality check and comparisons with the vision of New Work entailed a view of the past characterized by pragmatic traits: Those motivated by an ambition to get ahead at work must function, not reflect. The more professional we are, i.e. the more we succeed in adhering to the rules of our job and disregarding other considerations – which in rational terms go beyond purpose – the more likely we are to gain the recognition of others (meaning the organization we work for, our boss, our colleagues, and society in general). Yet the reality, assuming we’re open to it, is often more mundane than visionary or revolutionary. We strive continuously to fall in line with the expectations others have of us, which are often only assumptions. This entails a constant sense of skepticism toward our social environment, as well as a feeling of insecurity and, to a certain extent, distance to our real selves. This is because we don’t adopt a stance that we arrived at ourselves and we don’t feel effective based on our personal sense of responsibility.
To get to this point, we must be bold in dealing with the desired change, also so that we are able to realize it within ourselves and seize any opportunity to shape that change, even if it at first this may feel unfamiliar. But an agile mindset that embraces values such as openness and the willingness to learn is not something that happens automatically – solving the problems of our economy, our working environment, and society at the push of a button. Above all, agility entails the realization of an inner process of transformation, not only reacting quickly and flexibly to market developments and focusing on the customer, but, above all, going further on a holistic level and evolving. If we fail to achieve this in our professionalism, exercised in ambition, we are pulled in different directions, forfeiting ourselves as moral individuals and subordinating the standards by which we make judgments, personal resourcefulness, and our views of life to the goals of the collective – thus sacrificing them in the long term. The requirement within a New Work philosophy and the process of personally developing in this direction is thus to see through inner stress caused by adapting, to endure that stress, to boldly confront the intrinsic maxims that express our values, and to position ourselves. And to do that, it’s important to not just see professionalism as a virtue.
Can too much agility be harmful?
The biggest danger is that the new understanding of organizational processes, team interactions, and customer focus is often simply imposed on people, without any form of shared internal process. Furthermore, agility is often introduced inadequately or incorrectly, which can lead to inconsistencies with other important rules, and thus result in friction and conflict. There is also a misunderstanding that this is a tool for enhancing efficiency and innovation, without taking human factors or cultural aspects into account, and this causes confusion in the development process. Further difficulties stem from agile working itself, which requires a strong degree of personal competence and transfers many tasks to employees who did not have to worry about them before. To avoid negative impacts, stakeholders must, from the outset, become involved and be allowed to participate in decision-making. It may also be necessary to be selective in the use of agile forms and processes, and if in doubt even do without them.
Agility in development
Agility 2.0, which is encouraged in this context, is not only about customers and the success of individual companies, it is also about people – i.e. human dignity. This is also referred to as post-agility. This also places the focus on people and the common good, and ultimately, both are needed: a sense of responsibility for the business and society, quick reactions, reactive reflection, action in the here and now, but also an out-and-out drive to shape the future. Qualitative aspirations and corresponding expectations in the long term set the bar extremely high. This is also a matter of establishing how sustainable benefit is delivered. The way forward is signaled not only by agile values, but above all by the broader context within which measures and decisions are embedded. This creates opportunities to include social values as a benchmark for entrepreneurial action and to lay those values as a cornerstone of business activity. But the image of human nature this conveys also highlights the need to position things correctly. Do we want adult, self-sufficient consumers or do we want data-driven robots that allow themselves to be pushed in a certain direction? What’s called for in the here and now is not only innovation, but community-centric advancement and a clear commitment to values through close interaction between business and society. Post-agile leadership and decision-making focuses on people – the community in which things are created, beyond the interests of companies. This is about the ideas that we as a society want to move forward with, ideas we identify with, and how we want to live and work. It’s about a vision of an economy that revolves around sustainability and the common good. Anything else will not be sustainable for long – also due to the collapse of ecological systems.
Committing to social factors as points of reference is an opportunity to establish intrinsic leadership guidelines, to safeguard value, and to do away with personal arbitrariness in the fundamental decisions affecting corporate development. Leading means observing this value set even more faithfully. It becomes essential and valuable to adopt long-term perspectives, even if agile action is taken in the short term due to the current situation. Post-agile leadership sees the future as a place of opportunity, something that has to be shaped, hand in hand with values held by a broad population. One aspect this highlights is that a distinction can no longer be made between working and learning. Business development is only possible if acquiring, applying, and sharing know-how and skills is raised to a new level, throughout the organization. This is because new approaches to learning will only work in the organization if those who are learning receive appropriate support and information. In turn, those individuals will only embark on learning processes if they consider them to be meaningful on a personal level. This requires positive mission statements, underpinned by action taken by role models within the context of transparent, people-oriented leadership. Changing the culture of an organization thus always requires the development of a learning culture, which must therefore be kept up to date to reflect new forms of work and digital technology. New Work is a learning process, one that takes place holistically on all levels, as part of a continual and continuous loop of reflection.
Prospects for the future
All in all, it is clear that digital transformation can help with the introduction of positive and attractive measures. That said, every company has different requirements and needs, as does every individual employee – and things become highly individual when it comes to work and personal well-being. In the future, the art will therefore be to provide a variety of services that are needed by different target groups according to their respective stage of life.
We are therefore standing on the cusp of an epoch-making transformation in work culture. Once you embark on this journey, you find that the goals of digital transformation and becoming agile still require advice when it comes to the demands that are placed on people. Despite the functional benefits and universal remedies promised by new approaches and (learning) methods, it is the people who have to deal with the personal impacts of transformation. And thus the process of becoming agile is being extended to include the topics of New Work and new forms of learning. The challenges with this process are that leadership and organization, but also learning on all levels, go hand in hand with one another if the transformation process is to be mastered. The topic of learning, and the targeted development of human resources on all levels of the business, are thus of tremendous importance; and to prevent the process of transformation taking on potentially unintended forms, or having unintended impacts on people’s work environments, learning must be a requirement of the transformation process.
The experts at Steinbeis Consulting Group Personal (SCGP), which focuses on effective organizational consulting in the conflicting area between transformation and HR management, and Steinbeis Consulting Group Digital Business Transformation (SCG DBT) support companies in successfully shaping this transformation process.
Daniel Müller-Rang (author)
Steinbeis Consulting Center Key Competence, Leadership and Management (Karlsruhe)