Inga Höltmann gained access to New Work through her research and intensive involvement with the topic. As a business journalist, she wrote about and spoke with organizations that gave her deep insights into the transformation process of their work structures. This resulted in the Accelerate Academy. Today, Inga Höltmann supports people and organizations who want to consciously shape their working world differently. In this interview, she tells us what constitutes New Work from her perspective, how organizations should approach the topic, and why a future without New Work concepts is feasible, but unlikely to achieve its goals.
How do you view the topic of New Work?
In my view, new work is the best response to the major changes we are currently facing in the world of work. The debate about New Work is often reduced to the individual, for example with the question: How do I want to work? That's justified, but it's only one component in the big picture. But we should also ask ourselves: How can we achieve and anchor innovation and lasting change in organizations in order to respond appropriately to the rapid social and technical challenges? This can open new doors for the future, and New Work is the key to this for me.
What typical tasks do organizations face when they want to implement New Work?
Every organization faces its own challenges: A young dynamic agency, for example, operates under different conditions than a company that is already being run by the third or fourth generation. There can be individual transformation journeys of the entire organization or even those at the departmental level. On the other hand, I consider modular systems with prefabricated procedures to be less effective. After all, the first step every company should take is to work out its own vision and then ask itself: How can we get there? What hurdles can we face? What structures do we need for implementation? These are very far-reaching processes that can also be painful because they mean change. That's why what's needed above all is the will and courage to engage openly and honestly in this transformation process, to endure the possible pain points, and to look again and again to see whether the path we've chosen fits or whether we need to make another correction. For me, new work is first and foremost an attitude, and only secondarily a toolbox.
In your view, what factors determine the success of the transformation?
It's good to start at different points in the organization and explain very precisely why the change is important. Then the appropriate resources must be made available. This doesn't just mean money, but also time: If I want to anchor the topic of “learning” in my organization, but at the same time people have to perform at 100 percent of their previous level, then it's almost clear where they will set their priorities when they have to make a decision.
It takes an honest and strong commitment at all levels. Because when we look at processes like this, it quickly becomes clear that no guiding paper or single project alone will change the culture in an organization.
I have the impression that it is often forgotten that in this VUCA world* in which we now find ourselves and which is very complex and unclear, we may no longer be able to go into the future with the knowledge and methods of the past. But companies can counter this external complexity with internal complexity, and internal complexity means, for example, trying out formats from the New Work toolbox or ensuring more diversity.
*Editor's note: The acronym VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and describes the changing market environment that companies must navigate today.
One of the biggest changes since last spring has probably been the pandemic. In your view, has this driven the topic of new work forward? After all, what seemed impossible before suddenly became feasible in many places.
I would like to look at it the other way around: What we saw in the pandemic is that companies that were perhaps not specifically prepared for a pandemic, but were already more agile overall, were far better positioned in this challenging time and were thus also better able to adapt to the changes. I think that is the lesson we should learn from Corona: Not to simply wait and see what might come your way, but to set an organization in motion on principle. Because it's much easier to make course corrections than to take action only when things get serious. We may be talking a lot about home office at the moment, but just because many people work from home doesn't mean a remote work culture. This requires well thought-out processes, for example. If these were not defined before Corona, frustration and the feeling that everyone should go back to the office after the pandemic may now arise - in other words, a return to old structures. But our lesson should be: Remote work is good and right. And we should work out together how we can achieve this, what processes and what culture we need for this, even without a pandemic.
Speaking of “old structures”: Can New Work support women in the world of work more or differently than men?
If we perceive New Work, for example, as “part-time” or also “job sharing”, then these are offers that today are primarily taken up by women. However, such formats are still deviations from a perceived norm and are thus accepted at best, but more often actually have negative connotations.
After all, the norm in Germany is still the 9-to-5 full-time job. As long as a deviation from this norm is also perceived as such, I don't see it as New Work, but merely as a step in the direction of flexibilization. It is not enough just to introduce such new concepts in the company. Rather, they must become a matter of course so that, for example, opportunities for advancement are also available. Once again, values play an enormous role in this debate. And men also benefit from such flexibilization! Because at the end of the day, New Work is also primarily about people being able to help shape their working environment.
The topic of New Work is often seen as an elitist discussion. Can you offer a different perspective?
Of course, there are professions where there can be no flexibility of place or time – for example, in the care sector, hospitals, retail and many more. But if we realize that New Work is, after all, an attitude and has to do with values, I can live those in any organization. This can mean changing the way people work with each other, how rosters are created, for example, or how absenteeism is dealt with in the company. Organizations do well to create a space where these reflections can be lived.
What do you think the ideal of New Work looks like?
I would like to see a development where flexibility in the world of work is something that becomes even more normalized and is not something that hinders or prevents careers. New Work is not about just creating an offer, but also looking at it: How is it perceived in the organization? Is it something that is considered normal? Or is it merely seen as a deviation from a norm? That's why, in my view, it's not enough just to introduce concepts; what's needed is a meta-debate and awareness-raising. In the end, everyone benefits from greater freedom of choice in our work – employees and employers alike. Organizations that offer employees options for responding to specific life events with life-oriented concepts ensure that people learn to better shape their working environment themselves.
Interview: Alexa Brandt