Is New Work actually that new?

New Work or the New World of Work has become one of those phrases that everyone uses but what is actually behind the phrase. Just like disruption, agile working and digitalization no meeting, article or work conversation seems possible without one or all of them being used; make sure they are on your Buzzword Bingo cards! All this doesn’t really matter; what matters most is how can the ideas that are inside New Work be used and successfully be put into practice?

Admittedly, the first thought that came to mind was that New Work was just a term that applied to Gen Y; the disruptive attitudes and practices they have ‘forced’ onto the workplace. It seemed to apply to that generation who didn’t seem to want to drag themselves into the office five days a week; they wanted flexibility in their life, to make a difference and do work that is meaningful and they find fulfilling.

But is this desire for a sense of purpose, making a difference and meaningful activity really that new? And does this desire really only apply to people born after 1980?

New Work – the origins of a cultural movement?

Let’s take a look back: The term New Work originated way back at the beginning of the third industrial revolution in the 1970s in the USA (yes, it’s been around for almost 50 years!). Frithjof Bergmann and some colleagues were exploring the opportunities available to people in automobile factories who had lost their jobs as a result of increasing levels of automation on the production lines. In their Institute for New Work, they asked factory workers what they actually wanted to achieve in their lives. The most common answer was “to make a difference”, i.e. making a meaningful and significant contribution to society. So it was around then and maybe even prior to that, but nobody asked, or if they did it wasn’t heard! And the findings came from a factory environment not some silicon valley start-up!

Structure is out and flexibility is in

So New Work has been building in prominence for around for 50 years – it’s been around a while and its coming to the forefront again as artificial intelligence (AI), automation and other forms of technology are enabling changes in the working landscape for many people. These radical changes clearly started affecting unskilled factory workers in the last quarter of the 1900’s.  Now it’s the turn of the ‘knowledge sector’ – lawyers,  doctors, accountants and others.  Technology and disruptive business models are changing how most of us work, communicate and relate to colleagues and customers. So technology has become an enabler, allowing the basic ideas of New Work, such as meaningfulness, personal responsibility and community, to blossom and grow.

The reality is that people largely feel less secure as our world has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). However in that less knowable, more unpredictable  space lies more room for freedom, choice and opportunity for people to implement their own ideas. And many people have – almost half of the working population in the United States work for themselves! Organisations have had to respond to this shift, and where they have they seem to flourish; where they have clung on to older patterns they have found it heard to stay competitive.

So what can we do?

  • We can try to find out what we (or others) really want and how they can find this in their life. That is very easy to say and even harder to do! You might need a coach or mentor to and ask some great questions to ‘unpick that lock’.
  • Start now! Finding out what is meaningful to you is a topic that starts earlier rather than later in life; ideally considering this in your formative years of schooling is core to you maturing into an integrated adult.
  • Create working worlds in which people can work with a high degree of individual freedom to act and take responsibility. Agile team processes, remote and flexible working and other self-organising systems offer a way to do this.
  • Promote diversity and variety. Cross-functional project work, loose networks of people who form and reform teams as required instead of being distributed in departmental silos of functional expertise.
  • Promote exchange and cooperation. We are social beings and the exchange of opinions, ideas and feelings with each other is one of our most important needs. In a digital world, even when it feels like it is dying out, human contact is not an option; it’s a must-have for our well-being.
  • Encourage ways of helping people grow, develop and keep themselves relevant through their work, and design it in such a way that people can be themselves rather than just a ‘role’.
  • New Work also changes the way leadership is carried out – but that’s for another day…

Many of the ideas behind New Work are not new. Nevertheless, or precisely because of that, they are still important today. The desire for meaningful and personally significant work does not stop because work has changed, society has changed or we have identified a different generation. In the end, New Work stands for an optimistic view of the future summed up by the battle cry: Let’s create a better and more humane working world together!