If there is something known as New Work, then this implies that there must be such a thing as Old Work. So what exactly is that then? Frithjof Bergmann, who developed the concept of New Work (see info box), describes Old Work as classic hired labour – in other words, work that people do solely for payment. He likes to point out that many people actually don’t like their job; they see it as a mild disease that they tolerate, but would rather get rid of. Sound familiar? Well, almost everyone is familiar with the feeling somehow.
If the job becomes a vocation, the most important step in the direction of New Work has been taken.
Bergmann wants people to do what they really want to do. They then do the job willingly and almost certainly better as a consequence, which in turn benefits everybody. However, a conscious approach from managers when delegating responsibility is also needed to give people job fulfilment. Jeff Kaplan, chief developer at the video game producer Blizzard Entertainment (gaming fans will know it as the maker of World of Warcraft), talks about his role as the boss:
‘I know that developers all over the world would love to work for Blizzard, so we have some of the best people working for us. We should also let these people make decisions. Every now and then, a conflict arises and I have to have the final say. This then feels like a failure. If I never have to make a decision, because the team takes care of it, then I have won as the boss.’
‘The people, the workplace, the technology – those are the three key factors that determine the success of an office,’ says Jeremy Myerson, professor at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in London. He also sees difficult challenges for employers: ‘Companies must reconcile two factors: people want to be given responsibility for their individual work, but they also have this need to be part of a group – in an age when more flexible working conditions prevail on various levels.’
Enfant terrible entrepreneur Richard Branson conducted a fun experiment with his Virgin Group two years ago. For just one day, which they called ‘Corporate Day’, all employees were asked to report for work at 9 a.m. on the dot, dressed in business attire. They had to address each other formally and refrain from visiting any social networks or making any private phone calls during working hours. ‘It was a horrible experience for everybody,’ said Richard Branson, the following day. The point of it all, according to Branson, was to give colleagues an idea of what everyday working life is still like at a number of other companies around the world. He oversees his Virgin empire on the principle that the employees should be given more self-determined flexibility. They should turn up wearing clothes in which they feel comfortable and be given the opportunity to do some of the work from their home office. And if somebody wishes to take a longer break, this should also be possible. This is how he achieves a lower staff fluctuation rate within his company and inspires a more motivated attitude among the employees, who are happy to work to their full potential to achieve more with greater enjoyment.
Respect and appreciation are traditionally in vogue here
The Italian fashion designer and entrepreneur Brunello Cucinelli is demonstrating in his own way that work has something to do with dignity. Brunello Cucinelli S.p.A., the public limited company that he founded at the end of the 1970s, employs around one thousand people in Umbria. He pays them 20 per cent above the average salary and promotes an open company structure in which everyone can make a contribution. ‘It can also be good for the image, but it primarily boosts creativity,’ he says on the matter. ‘If people are treated well, then they also work much better. Every person has dignity and this must be respected.’ He makes it quite clear as he professes: ‘My dream is to make work more human.’
Accordingly, Cucinelli is close to building on the idea of not just paying attention to the well-being of the individual, but compelling companies to promote the interests of the common good. In France, President Macron and his Minister for the Economy Bruno Le Maire now want to set new social goals to improve the country’s corporate culture, which is generally considered to be less than perfect. The French employer federation Medef is against the move. Some companies, however, have signalled their full backing, including the food multinational Danone and energy and waste disposal specialist Veolia. The measures that Macron wishes to compel companies to comply with in France have been adopted voluntarily for some years now in the USA.
33 US states introduced the ‘benefit corporation’ back in 2010
This is a kind of corporate entity that for-profit companies can become. By doing so, they undertake to demonstrate their commitment to furthering the interests of the common good.
Whether for the individual or the common good, the ideals of New Work are increasingly gaining acceptance in the world of work. And why? The so-called millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) are playing a more decisive role in the employment market. Their ideal of everyday working life is becoming ever more strongly determined by two factors. The first is feeling comfortable both at work and with the job itself and the second is having a sense of purpose in relation to everyday work. Those who attract this generation will be able to benefit from their motivation and expertise.
Frithjof Bergmann is the founder of the New Work movement.The philosopher was born in 1930 and currently holds the chair in philosophy and anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has taught at Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley, among other places. He has also worked as a guest lecturer in Kassel, Germany, and is still active. In 2017, he gave a lecture at the New Work Experience in Berlin, organised by the online network Xing, and received a standing ovation. Here, he said: ‘Anyone who doesn’t ask themselves what they really want from life is capitulating. They are cowards.’Interestingly, it was a trip to the Eastern bloc at the end of the 1970s that provided the initial spark for his New Work idea. He saw the inevitable collapse of communism coming and capitalism as the only surviving system. Yet there had to be a sensible alternative plan to this! Or some kind of well-considered progression? New Work! The principle is not based on the pursuit of profit, but on the fulfilment of real human needs. Bergmann doesn’t wish to liberate people from work. His aspiration is for work to create free and self-determined people. In 1984, he founded the first ‘Center for New Work’ in Flint, Michigan, located barely an hour’s drive north of his teaching institution in Ann Arbor and the motor city of Detroit. He has been a highly esteemed adviser to companies, unions and governments on the subject of work ever since.