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Career in Times of New Work and Agility

by Natascha Zeljko

Why purpose and content will beat company cars and titles in the future. An interview with Andreas Wartenberg, managing director at Hager Unternehmensberatung about new work and agility

Let’s get straight to the point: What are the arguments for New Work?

A decisive argument is the issue of availability and flexibility. New Work enables us to react quicker to certain situations. This is particularly evident now, in the time of Corona virus crisis. When something as serious as this happens, the whole process naturally rises even more rapidly. In terms of New Work, it is extremely important that employees are able to act and react. That they can work remotely. Looking at the time before the Corona, people were on the move, on business trips, on vacation, or had some other issue they were concerned with. At the same time, the world of work has changed; in many jobs long response times are simply not possible. Or people don’t feel like processing thousands of e-mails after a long vacation. It’s better to go through the messages for half an hour every day during your holiday, have a free desk and be able to get started again after coming back. However, when talking about agile processes, this goes beyond purely mobile working. It’s about a different culture – away from the cumbersome waterfall model, where decisions go through hierarchy level after hierarchy level and you end up somewhere you didn’t even want to. Instead, the goal is to drive decisions and projects forward and achieve the best possible results in a short amount of time. However, this requires the use of appropriate technology. 

In addition to the tools, it also needs a radical rethink – on the part of both employees and companies. What must they learn?

First and foremost, one thing must be clear: What is really important at work? Is it about pure presence, or, to put it crudely, about serving time? Do we really have to be in one place and constantly exchange information? Or is it about achieving good results, reaching milestones, advancing projects within a defined time? In this case, the issue of control must be completely reassessed. This means that the focus must shift from the conditions of the work, i.e. how you arrive at a result, to the result itself.

That sounds easier than it actually is …

That’s right. The biggest antagonist to agile work structures is mistrust. When I think to myself: “Now they’re in this new, great room again, writing on the ceiling and walls and on the floor. Is that really effective?” If you always and reflexively have doubts, you will have a hard time adjusting with agile structures.

The New Work topic is not new. Frithjof Bergmann already laid the foundations for it in the 70s. Why did it take so long for it to become established? Or to put it another way: What came first? New Work or Generation Y or the Millennials?

I think it’s a mixture of both. In order to be able to work differently, of course, you have to shift people’s minds. We all know the saying: Change is great, as long as I’m not concerned. That’s an attitude that many people share, including millennials actually. It takes time to change the way in which people think. But it also needs appropriate framework conditions. This applies to many phenomena, the French Revolution would not have taken place if those two had not come together. In relation to our topic, there are declining results or a lower employee motivation as can be seen, for example, from the higher staff turnover. It is also visible in how difficult it is to get new employees on board, because they go to other companies that have already established modern working models. This is one side of the coin. And, finally, you also need enabling factors, which, in the case of agility, are the appropriate technologies.

“The biggest antagonist to agile work structures is mistrust”

Let’s talk about the word ‘career’. In the past, if you had a corner office, a secretary and a posh company car, you “made it”. Those were the classic insignia of power. How has that changed? What are the important values today?

One key word has just come up – values. Everything indicates that the subject of work is becoming more and more valued. What is the overriding benefit? What is my contribution to the big picture? What is changing through my work? I recently had a candidate who comes from the top management. He said in the interview: ‘I would only move to a company if I can make a difference. I want to do something that will help the society and help people’ he said. It means that you no longer look for employment to have a job and equip the position with the appropriate attributes – corner office, secretary, company car. It is more about personal development and the environment. So questions such as: What can I take away from this job? How can I expand my own portfolio of skills? Those aspects will become dramatically more important over the next ten or 15 years.

What about salaries?

People still want to earn good money, they want to be paid fairly. Actually also including the younger generations like the Millennials. Nobody would say: I can work for free.

“Everything indicates that the subject of work is becoming more and more valued. What is the overriding benefit? What is my contribution to the big picture?”

What new demands the leaders of the future have to face?

In the new world it is the same as in the old world: there are career paths that are steeper and those that are flatter. Some want to get to the top, others don’t. As a manager of the future, I have to coordinate employees much more closely. I will offer more opportunities to those who are more ambitious. To those, who are more defensive, I will perhaps have to give more specific, more individual and “smaller” tasks. In any case, and this is crucial, the issues can only be resolved collectively. As an entrepreneur, as a manager, as a career developer, I simply cannot present employees with a fait accompli. Only if I communicate with people will I have the chance to calm their fears, to show possibilities and thus to not leave anyone behind. The authoritarian style will no longer work in most teams and departmental organizations; this does not mean that everything is to be discussed collectively. There are still issues in companies that have to be decided by the sovereign.

How will the recruiting process change?

The evaluation of personality, characteristics and skills will, of course, become increasingly important. Especially as we are mainly concerned with management positions. We are thinking in long-term. It means that we are looking for someone, who can handle not only today’s tasks and challenges, but also those of the future. The CV is just a first rough starting point. The pure CV data has long ceased to be sufficient. In the case of a manager, it helps to take a look at the development path, but topics such as leadership style, culture, attitude, development potential are even more important.

In addition to all these changes, there will be more new forms of cooperation in the future – towards more project-orientated work, including highly qualified jobs and in the interim business.

That’s right, it’s undeniable that this development is coming. It means completely new challenges for the employers. There are two important points here: they don’t just have to think about how to hire employees for the projects, but also how to release employees from the projects again. These people are specialists and it may well be that employers will need them again in three or five years. And they will remember very clearly how they felt, whether they had a good experience and whether they ‘phase out’ worked well. All in all, the same applies to this topic as previously discussed: These jobs are not defined by the position, but purely by the content. It’s all about skills and know-how. The traditional career concept no longer plays a role.

Where do we stand in Germany when it comes to New Work and agility?

Unfortunately, it has to be said that we are still at the very beginning in many sectors. It’s like with digitalization. We send our employees to work from home and find that the networks are not strong enough and people are supposed to switch off Netflix. It’s a good example of where we are in this issue. As for the agile structures: Among my consulting customers there is exactly one company that is fully agile with 300 employees. A very exciting company that works really well for them. At the same time, I know 50 other consulting firms that are nowhere near as far along as this. There are already good approaches happening here and there, but overall we are still in the experimental phase.

“It’s all about skills and know-how. The traditional career concept no longer plays a role”

Is it particularly difficult for traditional medium-sized companies or is that just a prejudice? 

My experience is that it is a very individual matter. I know companies in the SME sector that are located in the provinces and which are completely aware that they won’t get good staff if they don’t incorporate agile or work remotely from the outset. And vice versa, there are large corporations that still operate according to the command and control principle or that are directed from Asia or America. That’s where you can have the greatest ideas for agile work in Germany. However, you won’t be able to implement them so easily. That would require a little palace revolution. Then the middle sized companies could be faster again. Nevertheless, it may be true that it is more difficult for these companies to implement that. Many of the firms have quite different issues on their agenda, such as global competitiveness. So it’s not so much a question of: Now let’s make sure that everybody is feeling pleased.

Let’s take a look at the future: What comes after New Work?

That is a good question. I believe that the topics of work, world, relationships, climate, culture and organization will occupy us for a very long time to come. I also believe that the topic of project-orientated work will become more and more crucial and that digitalisation and especially AI will evolve a lot. In ten or 15 years, machines will do most of the work for us. This will fundamentally change our professional and private lives. What will we do with the time when we work less? When we act on a project basis and perhaps only work for half a year or three quarters of a year? This is the next big topic. But there is still some time left.

“In ten or 15 years, machines will do most of the work for us. This will fundamentally change our professional and private lives”

Finally, a personal question: What do you find attractive about your job? 

As a recruitment consultant, it’s all about finding candidates who not only achieve good results today, but also in the medium and long term. This is why it is, of course, necessary to deal with the topic of the future for professional reasons alone. It’s thrilling! You deal with people, with different perspectives, with cultural change. You get to look behind facades and under the surface: what do you find there? It is an analytical, sometimes psychological, but in any case, an exciting task. The biggest challenge is to master this dichotomy: On one hand you need to always classify and to put people in the categories and at the same time to forbid yourself to do exactly that and to say to yourself: “Forget the categorizing”. Because you are only really good at this job if you are open and ready to discover new things.

 

This article is part of a content cooperation between FemaleOneZero (F10) and Hager Unternehmensberatung. The company, which specializes in executive search, has repeatedly been named one of the best personnel consultancies in Germany by the magazines WirtschaftsWoche and Focus. Hager Unternehmensberatung employs around 110 people and, in addition to its extensive know-how in the field of digitalization, is also considered a specialist in issues relating to diversity and innovation.

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