New Work has been one of the most colourful buzzwords in the business world for several years now. However, the term is rarely understood as it was originally intended. A trip to Michigan in the early 1980s.
Fruit platters and smoothies in the company's own kitchen? Collaborative sessions in co-creation spaces? Colourful pin boards full of post-its? Check-in rounds during video calls? New Work is associated with a wide variety of things. If you research how the concept is defined in specialist publications, you will often find it linked to terms such as flat hierarchies, personal responsibility, remote work and agile working methods.
In some cases, attempts at defining the term are quite adventurous as demonstrated by the entry for New Work in the glossary of the renowned Zukunftsinstitut. This is studded with keywords such as “Womanomics”, “Talentism”, “Flexicurity” or “Slash-Slash-Biographies”.
Faced with this mish-mash of words, you would be quite justified in asking: What exactly is New Work? To answer this question, I'm travelling 40 years back in time, to Frithjof Bergmann. Bergmann – now 89 – is an Austrian-American prize fighter and philosopher. He is considered to be the “inventor” of New Work. He developed the concept in Michigan at the end of the 1970s when he worked for the automotive manufacturer General Motors, where he was employed as a business consultant.
Six months of work, six months of searching for meaning
So, what was the challenge at that time? Just as it is today, the industrial revolution was progressing rapidly. As a result, machines and computers were increasingly taking over General Motors factories – a good half of all workers were about to lose their jobs. Overwhelmed by the situation, General Motors turned to Bergmann for help.
He made the following proposal to the management: Instead of dismissing half of the workforce, everyone should stay, but only work for six months a year. Workers should then spend the other six months finding out what they “really, really want”. They were not supposed to go about this haphazardly and on their own, but with intensive support from the company and the Center for New Work, which Bergmann founded together with General Motors. The idea was that the centre would also help employees to earn money from their calling.
Of course, Bergmann’s idea was ridiculed to begin with, but he was successful: For example, a group of General Motors workers set up a small factory that produced metal fittings for boats. And another group founded an agency that helped retired people to find out what they “really, really” wanted to do, even in old age. These are just two exemplary initiatives among dozens.
Radical reversal in our employment relationship
As time passed, Bergmann honed his idea of New Work and began to call for a radical reversal: That we should not serve work, but work should serve us. That it should give us energy and strength to become fuller and more alive as humans. As such, Bergmann's original idea of New Work goes much further than our current understanding of the term: This is not simply about making work more pleasant and fun – as the associations mentioned earlier suggest and what Bergmann himself calls “wage labour in a miniskirt” – but about shaping work in a way that gives people more freedom. New technology can greatly support us in this respect. It can reduce the burden or complement the things we do. Take automation, for example, which delegates repetitive tasks to bots, or analytics, which can obtain insights from data.
Freedom is also one of Trivadis' core cultural values. Freedom to use the skills that are not only “useful”, but also bring you joy. Freedom to try something out, fail and learn from it. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently published a long article, showing what this looks like in detail here at Trivadis.
I would like to conclude by quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, “With freedom comes responsibility.” It is not only up to us to encourage and demand freedom, but we also have to really use it.