The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Good work
The development of work in the digital age is often referred to as ‘New Work’. It would be better to use the term ‘Good Work’, as this describes what is at stake: the need for mutual flexibility between employers and employees, the replacement of hierarchical leadership with cooperative models, the integration of digital tools for efficient communication, the recognition of individual strengths and psychological safety, and the creation of agile workspaces. The aim is to adapt to the demands of speed, customer orientation and innovation, which requires a rethink of traditional management attitudes towards a people-centred corporate culture.

The world of work has changed considerably during digitalisation. Among other things, this has resulted in revised work concepts and attitudes – often labelled ‘new work’ in the media. I’m not a big fan of this term because ‘new’ doesn’t say anything about whether work has become better, simpler, more co-determined or more people-orientated as a result. But that’s exactly what it must be about if we want to develop ourselves and the world of work. For me, putting people at the centre of change is an essential prerequisite for sustainability, which is why I prefer to talk about  ‘good work’ rather than ‘new work’. I would like to take a closer look at what ‘good work’ can mean in concrete terms in regard to the following five aspects:

1. Flexibility

Not only employers but also employees are demanding more flexibility. Flexible working hours, locations and workplaces allow work to be adapted quickly and efficiently in response to changing situations, while at the same time offering employees better opportunities to reconcile work and family life.

What it means for leadership: Flexibility only works well and sustainably if it is a mutual give and take. To achieve this, flexibility and power must be decoupled, i.e., the organisation of flexible working time models, for example, must not be dominated by either employer or employee. What is needed here is defined room for manoeuvre, the limits of which are determined by the employers but which can be filled autonomously by employees within these limits.

What we can do: In workshops, we should openly discuss which operational needs are essential and where employees have the autonomy to organise themselves. To do this, we need to offer appropriate training programmes for both sides and give internal (or external) experts in people management a moderating role.

Example: Some hospitals in Switzerland have been experimenting with working time models where employees have a number of special days off which they can plan in advance, these are then scheduled as fixed and guaranteed as days off.

2. Organisation and Co-operation

The days of lone wolves are over. Agile methods such as co-creation and design thinking promote interdisciplinary, iterative thinking and working. The role of the ‘lead wolf’ at the top of an organisation must be replaced by a cooperative model.

What it means for leadership: The metamorphosis from wolf to team player can only succeed if we offer attractive alternatives for the ‘lead wolves’. We must not forget that they have invested a lot of time and energy on their way to becoming a lead wolf and they will only be prepared to write off these investments if they can recognise advantages for themselves in a new, cooperative management culture.

What we can do: First, it is important to recognise that traditional leadership approaches are not bad per se. At the same time, we need to work with managers to determine what leadership should look like in the future so that it is not only effective, but above all, can be swiftly applied. Leadership success can no longer be measured solely by the quality of the implementation of objectives, but also by factors such as speed, innovation, customer orientation, adaptability and, finally, the quality of people orientation.

Example: The private bank Vontobel in Zurich is one of the first banks in Switzerland to have a dual leadership consisting of two co-CEOs. The bank is looking for a broad-based top management team with a high level of change competence.

3. Technology

Let’s imagine for a moment that the pandemic had hit us before we had the technology needed to work from home. Digital communication and collaboration systems, supported by big data and AI, have enabled a new level of team performance.

What it means for leadership: New digital means of communication, such as online meetings, have brought us the breakthrough for hybrid working concepts that are highly valued by many. In this context, we have found that the average duration of online meetings is shorter than that of traditional, physical meetings. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the number of meetings has increased because online meetings are much easier to organise than physical meetings. The bottom line is that we now spend more time in meetings than we used to and a large proportion of this is perceived as unproductive by the participants.

What we can do: Leadership must be about introducing new, asynchronous forms of cooperation. To do this, we need to provide new tools that eliminate the need to be constantly present in meetings yet still ensure smooth collaboration. Technology can be helpful here not only in the form of asynchronous collaboration apps but also in the use of AI, for example, as a bridge between face-to-face dialogue and individual one-to-one work.

Example: The HR software provider Flair relies on digitally-supported, asynchronous working models to enable worldwide remote working concepts.

4. Individuality

Although we want to belong and identify with others it is just as important for us to be recognised as individuals at work. Employees want to shape their own learning and performance goals and have the capacity to contribute their strengths more effectively.

What it means for leadership: Transactional leadership, as the most consistent equal treatment of all employees, is no longer enough. For success in a changing world of work, we also need strength-orientated, transformational leadership. This is expressed, among other things, when the focus is no longer on the job, but on the skills and motives of individuals.

What we can do: Strengthening psychological safety, i.e., the absence of fear of rejection when speaking up in a team would be particularly helpful. Various studies have shown that psychological safety is directly linked to learning, growth, innovation, and team performance, among other things. Psychological safety can only be achieved if there is trust, and this can only arise if there is genuine interest in the people behind operational roles.

Example: In its internal project Aristotle, Google has discovered how important psychological safety is for team success and also relies on this concept in personnel and management development.

5. Workspace

The typical office workstation with a table, chair and PC has long dominated the working world. However, it is only partially suitable for modern, agile and collaborative forms of work. Therefore, they are being replaced, at least in part, by new types of working environments that are more flexible and more meeting-orientated. It also promotes creativity, using the right space according to the task at hand.

What it means for leadership: In the past, power often manifested itself symbolically through the design of office space. The person with the most power got the biggest office. If you want to future-proof your workplace, you need to move away from this idea. Modern, agile organisations provide different settings to be used flexibly for different work and collaboration requirements. The type of work should determine the size and allocation of office space and not any hierarchical positions.

What we can do: Taking away the familiar individual office from managers usually triggers strong resistance from those affected. The loss of the office as a status symbol should be compensated for by other forms of appreciation, such as preferential access to information or inclusion in corporate decisions, perhaps as a member of strategic circles, for example.

Example: In its new office building, the sports shoe manufacturer On is focussing entirely on non-hierarchical office space, which is primarily intended to promote cross-divisional collaboration.

To summarise, the development of new work concepts is about adapting to current requirements such as speed, customer focus and innovation. When introducing these new work concepts, it is important to swap traditional attitudes and recipes for success with new perspectives. Such a swap can only succeed if a change to the new is sanctioned and incentivised. In the case of managers, however, the attitudes and recipes for success are often deeply rooted and manifested in their careers. In such situations, it may be necessary to first unlearn what has been ingrained over many years.

In turn, unlearning can only succeed if those affected have an awareness of their value and if they perceive themselves as more valuable than the status their position previously bestowed on them. People orientation must, therefore, not only focus on the employees to be managed but also include their managers because the successful introduction of new work concepts cannot be achieved without the managers, only with them.

It may appear socially romantic and a contradiction in an increasingly technological and digitally dominated world, but for all this we need a corporate culture of human warmth as a basic attitude for everyone – employers, managers, and employees.

Ensuring good work

He is a leadership and change management expert with more than 15 years of experience in senior executive positions. He is the founder of the HR consulting, coaching and training company peopleXpert. He also leads the Centre for Human Resources Management and Leadership at the University for Applied Sciences in Economics Zurich (HWZ).

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