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The revolution taking place at the office

Is New Work a passing fad, or a trend that will shape how companies operate in the future?

Sabina Sturzenegger, Guest author
Reading time
5 minutes
Two young women "ride" on an office chair through an office and radiate great joy.
New work delivers "news from a better world", with trust and flexible working and increased productivity. © Shutterstock/Svitlana Hulko

A recent article about New Work in the German newspaper Die Zeit starts like this: "The year is 2030. Open plan offices and overtime have become obsolete, and there are just as many female bosses as male bosses. "The author, who dreams of trust-based, flexible working hours, and greater productivity, says she is relaying "news from a better world." A world where she puts on a VR headset to meet her fellow team members in a virtual space and structures her workday remotely using her smartwatch. At different points during that workday, she will take time out to cook, pick up her daughter from daycare and do short workouts to relieve the strain on her back.

Woman wearing VR goggles
Meeting colleagues in a virtual space using VR glasses - utopia? © Shutterstock/Oleksandr Khmelevskyi

So what is this utopian concept she is referring to? What exactly is New Work?

To start with, New Work is not a utopian concept. It is a modern, employee-focused and self-determined way of working. According to New Work expert Michael Trautmann, at its core, the concept centres on "how to improve working conditions for everyone".

New Work: the brainchild of an Austrian refugee

A middle-aged male intellectual wearing a red scarf sits on a chair with his legs crossed in front of a green wall.
As early as the mid-1970s, social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann was sketching out ideas for a new world of work. © Andreas Teichmann/laif

The term New Work was coined by the social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann. He developed this theory about the future of work and explored the idea of work environments characterised by personal fulfilment and self-determination in the mid-1970s. Bergmann fled from Austria to the US at the age of 18 to escape the Nazis. In the US, he put himself through university, among other things, by fighting in boxing matches, and working as a dockworker and a farm labourer. And what he realised was that ever since the industrial revolution in the 19th century, work had consisted of completing or getting through a series of tasks, and that people merely served as a means to an end in this process.

Like others before him, Bergmann also explored how people can achieve self-realisation through their work while still having time for personal projects and charitable work. He believed that the only way to create the new jobs and meaningful products that people want is through meaningful work. In the 1980s, Bergmann founded the Center for New Work in Flint, Michigan, a city with a long history of auto manufacturing. At the time, car manufacturers were facing mass redundancies in the wake of automation. In response to this crisis, the management at GM considered implementing one of Bergmann’s proposals, namely, to let employees keep their jobs, but only work for the company for six months a year. For the remaining six months, Bergmann believed they should engage in activities for themselves and their community.

Jack Ma and the 12-hour week

Ultimately, GM couldn’t implement Bergmann’s plan without creating a host of new problems. But that did not mark the end of the New Work concept. On the contrary. In recent years, digitalisation and the increasing importance of artificial intelligence have given it a new lease on life. For proof, look no further than the billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the tech giant Alibaba. Ma believes that in the future, people will only have to work 12 hours a week thanks to artificial intelligence.

A grey-haired businessman looks out of the window of a modern office building.
Expert Michael Trautmann is convinced that the future of work means less work. © Christian O. Bruch/laif

New Work expert Michael Trautmann shares the view that in the future, work will entail less work. However, according to Trautmann, who has run advertising agencies and was Head Marketing at Audi, that’s only one aspect of the New Work concept. Trautmann says that people and companies need purpose, and believes that as suggested by Frithjof Bergmann, the work done at companies must be meaningful for both employees and the company - and for customers. Identifying and communicating this meaning, he says, is the responsibility of a company’s leadership.

According to this modern day interpretation of the New Work concept, each employee is given more responsibility, and traditional hierarchies are replaced by self-organising teams, lean management and agile working. This in turn results in an improved work environment and working conditions, as deep, distraction-free and focused work, meaningful collaboration and remote work become pivotal - as does lifelong learning.

Young man in a suit and sneakers sits on a skateboard with a laptop on his lap in front of a skyline.
Working conditions and the working environment need to improve: Deep work, distraction-free, focussed work, meaningful collaboration and remote work are becoming essential. © GettyImages/Westend61

But does the New Work model work? And do we even need to make such far-reaching changes to how we work?

A trend, not a utopia

There is much to suggest that New Work is here to stay. In a 2023 report by Ecoplan about the potential of New Work, the Swiss consultancy and research bureau refers to it as "a rather imprecise thought model". However, the experts agree that New Work is a trend - not a fantasy. The global pandemic accelerated this trend, helping certain technologies and concepts achieve a broad-based and swift breakthrough - in particular remote work.

Young woman sitting in a camper van overlooking a remote plateau, laptop on her lap, watching the sunset.
The coronavirus pandemic has helped the New World of work - particularly remote working - to take off. © stock/Mystockimages

It is therefore not surprising that flexible working hours and working locations, project-based and agile working, and a focus on meaningful work are already a reality at many companies in Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Such companies often have a combination of "old" and "new" forms of work. For example, according to Elvira Knecht, an HR manager Liechtenstein & Switzerland at LGT, agile working is already a reality in various teams and business units at LGT.

Some people prefer "real" bosses

A woman leans her head in her hands, looking exhausted and desperate as her laptop waits for another use.
Workplace health is also playing a more important role. © istock/Bevan Goldswain

But New Work also has the potential to have negative effects. For example, in its report, Ecoplan warns that the model could reinforce existing social inequalities. The report also highlights the growing importance of workplace health and explains that this new way of working brings "considerable health risks" with it, as new technologies and forms of work give rise to new mental illnesses. On the flipside, however, companies have never paid as much attention to employee health as they do today.

Cover of the book Brave New World. It shows the globe as the starting point of a spiral
The concept is also called "Brave New Work", in reference to Aldous Huxley's 1932 dystopian futuristic novel.

It should also be mentioned that not all employees are eager to usher in the age of New Work. According to a column in the Neue Zuercher Zeitung, many workers instead long to have "real bosses" again, who set boundaries and assign clear tasks. They hope that a return to more traditional ways of working will make them happier. What’s more likely, however, is that work will continue to have the potential to be both fulfilling and make you happy or make you sick and miserable - regardless of whether you have a "real" boss, or you work from home, from the beach or from a desk at the office.




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