Until a few years ago, it was mainly IT and tech companies driving a transformation in the working world. They developed new work processes and put them straight into action. Nowadays, however, the alternative forms of work emerging under the term “New Work” have long since moved beyond companies from Silicon Valley and other digital centers and are instead finding an increasingly broad base in more traditional industries. Along with initial positive practical experiences, the basic ideas of the New Work approach are becoming increasingly popular in the current situation with corona.
The pandemic has, almost overnight, made things possible that seemed almost unthinkable until recently. Entire corporations have shifted their workplaces from offices into living rooms, contract negotiations have suddenly become possible even without business trips that end in a personal handshake, and flexible working hours suddenly seem as normal as heading to a restaurant or company cafeteria at lunchtime.
“Many New Work ideas have been even further accelerated by COVID-19,” says Head of Global Reward and Mobility Lars Rottschäfer at SGL Carbon. He’s been following the New Work movement for a long time and is certain that its ideas will help above all in better managing complex projects and developments. Within SGL Carbon, he and his team have developed a concept based on three pillars that break down the ideas of New Work into the areas of training, work culture and work systems.
Rottschäfer has identified six trends in the corona pandemic that were already evident before the crisis but that have become so entrenched during the pandemic that they will continue to play an even greater role in the future.
Greater leeway at work and a wide choice among several alternatives are some of the core elements of New Work. Many companies have long used various formats for the further training of employees. Even before the corona pandemic, SGL Carbon employees could choose between traditional classroom training, purely virtual events or a mix of both, known as blended learning.
During the corona pandemic, SGL Carbon increased its range of online offerings even further. “This pays off as part of our New Work approach and promotes the personal development of our employees,” Rottschäfer says. He sees a clear trend towards the increasing significance of virtual training opportunities after corona. Furthermore, it will become even more important to consider exactly when which learning format can best be used. In addition to personalized, individual learning offerings, there is also a focus on team-based training courses in which relevant skills are learned in a group.
Researchers and practitioners have repeatedly debated whether business trips and mandatory attendance at long-running meetings are actually sensible or efficient at all. Yet such discussions often just resulted in the maintenance of the status quo. “During the corona pandemic, the business community suddenly realized just how much time had previously been spent traveling and attending meetings,” Rottschäfer explains. In the future, there will be much more thought put into how meetings can be conducted more efficiently and improved with the help of New Work tools. Such tools can maximize employees’ human potential many times over.
At SGL Carbon, various collaborative tools are in use, including Webex and Microsoft Teams, which will be further expanded in the future. “Before the pandemic, I sometimes drove four hours to another facility, had a ninety-minute meeting, and then drove back home,” Rottschäfer recalls. “I believe this will only happen in exceptional cases from now on.”
When it comes to the workplace, there have long been debates about new spatial arrangements that enable more cooperation and teamwork. The concept of knowledge sharing plays a particularly important role in these discussions. SGL Carbon implemented corresponding ideas and supported initiatives at various facilities some time ago.
Rottschäfer believes the corona pandemic has especially reinforced the sense and purpose of such considerations once again. “In the past weeks, we’ve all learned that some tasks are better taken care of at the office while others can be done better at home.” Creative work, for instance, continues to function better when there is personal contact. Therefore the offices of the future must be more strongly geared towards collaboration both in the real world and in virtual spaces. “We will see an even stronger trend in this area towards appropriately equipped rooms,” he predicts.
“Only the right mindset provides the necessary freedom for self-organization and self-management,” Rottschäfer says. In the future, companies must therefore make even greater efforts to ensure that their employees think autonomously about where and when they can work most efficiently.
Rottschäfer believes the corona pandemic acts like an amplifier in this respect as well. Many employees only really noticed the advantages and disadvantages of working from home during the initial lockdown restrictions. “Some find it very liberating, some very difficult because there is no longer a hard dividing line between work time and leisure time,” Rottschäfer says. Yet there is a clear trend nonetheless: “In the future, there will be much more freedom in terms of workplace and working hours wherever this is organizationally possible.”
New Work breaks from the traditional methods of the industrial age and rejects ideas such as a precise division of labor, fixed hierarchies and rigid standardization. Instead, employees themselves organize their work to a large extent and in independent coordination with their coworkers, and independently introduce their own ideas and critiques into their organizations. Traditional hierarchies are losing importance due to their lower efficiency and are being supplemented with networks that are organized in a decentralized way.
“We’ve been developing in this direction at SGL Carbon for a while,” Rottschäfer says. This has now paid off and has been further consolidated in the corona pandemic. It has become abundantly clear to everyone that the headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, can only make decisions to a limited extent about local developments in China or India, for example. “In the coming years, the focus will increasingly be on technical implementation on site and decisions will definitely be made more locally.”
Agile methods such as Design Thinking or Scrum are inseparable parts of the New Work repertoire and have become more strongly established in recent years. “Modern companies cannot be imagined without agility,” Rottschäfer says. In crises especially, it pays to be flexible and to be able to react quickly to new situations. In this respect, the corona pandemic has highlighted the strengths of agile methods even more strongly.
The SGL Carbon specialist doesn’t think much of one-size-fits-all approaches, however. As with every other concept, the agile method must be a fit for the respective area of application and for the people involved. “There’s no point in selecting a method and then imposing it from above across the group,” Rottschäfer explains. That’s why he and his team have developed a customer-oriented consulting model for SGL Carbon. “We advise the various business units and central functions and then offer them customized solutions,” he says. “It’s proven its value and will soon be expanded even further.”