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Organizational behavior July 8, 2020

Work and leadership beyond illusion

Mandy Huebner
There are many illusions around the idea of new work.

Each year in June, ESMT Berlin invites experts from business, government, academia, and civil society to share their perspectives and experiences as it relates to the hottest topics of the modern business world. This ESMT Annual Forum draws more than 300 guests and is an event highlight of the Berlin campus.  

Because of the coronavirus crisis, the Berlin campus was temporarily shuttered and the annual forum had to be canceled. Nevertheless, we reached out to our speakers, inviting them to approach the forum’s theme – “The New Work Illusion?” – through the lens of the pandemic. 

When I first imagined the Annual Forum “new work” theme, a few images immediately came to mind: Funky-looking office spaces with huge, writable walls. Fridges for after-work drinks in communal areas. A team fumbling around with sticky notes on a Kanban board, discussing which tasks can be moved to “done.” A digital nomad browsing for the next gig job from a hammock on some southeast Asian beach.  

There are many illusions around the idea of new work – open space office design and agile methods as silver bullets for collaboration, and the boundless freedom of the gig economy and flexible work arrangements are just a few examples. All of this is somehow new work and yet it is remarkably far away from the origin of this concept. The term has, unfortunately, become the collective label for just about everything that changes in the world of work and – even worse – has also become a popular marketing term to make products ranging from office furniture to collaboration software sound more attractive.  

At its origin, new work was a novel approach to the nature of work itself. Frithjof Bergmann, the philosopher who coined the term decades ago, promoted the idea of devoting one-third of working time to earning a living, one third to self-sufficiency and one third to “what you really, really want.” All this, he said, would lead to ideas, creativity, and innovation as well as a solidary and sustainable society.  

While his vision may be utopian, organizations can and should invest more energy into making the work itself more engaging, as opposed to just changing how/when/where it is done and how it is packaged. Global levels of engagement remain low according to Gallup’s annual state of the global workplace report. For too many employees, work is a daily experience they dread because some of their basic needs are not being met – they are not clear on what is expected of them, they do not receive recognition for good work, and they feel disconnected to a mission or purpose. The quality of leadership at all levels is a key lever for changing this.  

We read and hear a lot about the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity for fundamental change, and I believe that it can indeed dissolve some of the new work illusions.  

Working from home is a perfect example. Many companies already allowed telecommuting for their employees. However, remote work from a home office used to be viewed as something like a fringe benefit. Organizations would list it as a selling point in their job ads to attract the best talent. The reality these talents experienced was often quite different. Cultures of presenteeism that reward those who are present in the office (the longest), the expectation to be “always on” when working remotely, and jokes about working from home as a nice excuse for doing up your patio were common. COVID-19 has catapulted us into a world where working from home is – at least temporarily – the norm for most (former) office jobs. Companies that were reluctant to adopt it before are now experiencing how effective it can be, and that it is possible to maintain high productivity and morale at scale.  

Another example is the shift to digital. The coronavirus crisis is forcing many companies to significantly speed up the digital transformation of their internal processes or customer value proposition in order to survive and remain competitive. We all knew before COVID-19 that automation and digital transformation would both kill and create jobs, yet many of us had the illusion that this would only affect low-skilled work. We thought accountants, lawyers, consultants et cetera would be safe from automation. Now that unemployment is skyrocketing across all qualification levels, employees everywhere are questioning how safe their jobs are, and how employable they are should they lose their work. Employees are now aware they have invested too little in relevant future skills like digital literacy. And companies are realizing they have taken too little responsibility for the employability of the people whose jobs they are automating midterm. 

Within the coronavirus crisis context, leaders need to cope with a high degree of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). However, the hardest part may still be ahead of them – when the most acute fire fighting is done, they will need to shape a new future for their organizations. Strategic renewal will be a key part of this: Do we need to change our value proposition and business model to remain relevant? How are we going to compete in the post COVID-19 world?  

Such major shifts will only be successful if the human side of the change is taken into account. Apart from “classic” change management, leaders will need to enable their people to make decisions and work together effectively in a VUCA environment and to build personal resilience for the crises to come. My mission in our ESMT Executive Education programs is to support leaders in this difficult quest of organizational renewal as much as possible and to enable them to excel, despite a crisis context that reduces their time, energy, and resources for investing in their own development or that of their people. 

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