Anke Holst Digitales im öffentlichen Dienst
Digitales im öffentlichen Dienst

New Work: Too ambiguous to be useful

After a few years off work due to a very ill child, I am taking my first steps back into a productive existence. (Not that caring is not productive. But did you know it doesn’t pay?) Today I’ve been at a virtual event with the theme New Work.

New Work is the German umbrella term for everything concerning the future of work. From new forms of communication to flexible working, robotics, ergonomics, freedom, self-realisation… I had been wondering how this has happened in the otherwise so specific and precise German work culture. How have we chosen such an ambiguous term to bundle so many completely different items that, in the end, there is no more meaning to it? And in English, which makes it even harder to grasp? Today I got my answer: It is the same sort of personality cult that I’ve already met in the blogging world in the person of Work Out Loud’s John Stepper, except much bigger. Instead of innovation principles we can all build on and develop, we have a guru figure. Someone has taken the person of Frithjof Bergmann, the “founder of the New Work movement” (bet you didn’t know), put him on a pedestal and built a movement around it.

There was a (short, reverential) video call to him during the three hours of the event today, there were a goodly amount of references of his name and ideas. There was the repeated answer (because of course I asked about the ambiguity) that New Work is an attitude, not anything specific.Why do I have a problem with this? Something as fuzzy and as religious as this is easily rejected. If we talked about the specific thing we are talking about, like Enterprise Social Networks, Culture Change, Robotics, Freedom, Purpose and Self-Realisation, the people we are talking to about these things could understand us better and we could better help them change something in their organisations. But hype without a clear objective? It very quickly takes on a weird cult vibe and not only is it a harder sell than it has to be, but also we run the risk of losing the most intelligent people. And maybe that is why the environments that need it most reject it with the greatest possible force. (I am talking about healthcare, where I’ve spent most of the past 1 1/2 years and where I was shocked at the organisational culture. But if this is how we talk to them about change, is it not logical for them to reject it outright?)

I personally still think Enterprise Social Networks are a good starting point for any kind of organisation. ESNs don’t require too much effort to start with but can offer a few guided (if you do it right) first steps into changing small things, you can stop there but you can take it further with incremental changes and grow an entirely new culture. Because while people learn to use their voice, they also learn that others have a voice, an inner life, they learn to change things rather than complain and they learn that the organisation isn’t that big, unknowable, unchanging monolith. Then you can change your leadership style. You can do that until you and the people in all parts of your organisation are ready to think about and consider changing some very deeply held convictions about yourselves, others, work and life.

Yes, this takes work and this takes good people.

This whole network of wonderful, idealistic people who are now trying to convince others to listen to an esoteric American philosopher? Imagine if they focused on helping bring about small, doable changes, working with empathy and addressing real problems, rather than spread themselves out over the entirety of what might be.

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