Oliver Herrmann explains in an interview how the Corona crisis is accelerating New Work and why the New Normal is a transition. Oliver Herrmann is responsible for the "New Ways of Working" tribe in Deutsche Telekom's HR department. Together with his team, he shapes New Work and takes care of the development of the corporate culture.
Is the Corona crisis accelerating the path to new work?
You can look at the pandemic from many different perspectives. Even before COVID-19, we had already noticed in many areas that we are living in a fast-changing VUCA world. That stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. This world demands adequate ways of working: agile, exploratory, experimental, constantly questioning, and testing hypotheses. Since the VUCA world is non-linear, best practices from the past don’t necessarily help in an uncertain future. To be honest, in the vast majority of cases, we’ve behaved as if the future continues in a straight line from the past. But then came corona! That’s when we realized that the evolution could no longer be linear.
The pandemic as a blueprint for New Work?
Call it a gigantic experiment, if you will. We were forced to do exactly what people do in the VUCA world: trial and error, sense and respond – that is, try out new things and check on the effects in short cycles. There was too little knowledge, which meant we had to generate it first. Good practices had to be developed and they are still being developed. Since nobody was an established expert in this area – not even managers – we were all on equal footing and had to find sensible solutions together and then organize them ourselves. That brought us closer together and we’ve all learned a great deal, for example, how we can use our existing collaboration tools effectively for all different kinds of virtual collaboration. And we’ve also learned what doesn’t work; what we’ll stop doing.
In that regard, the corona pandemic really did speed up a lot of the things we hope to achieve with the new ways of working: continuous learning, always trying new experiments, working at eye level and in the network – iterative, agile, and exploratory.
There are those who say that the New Work is a synonym for New Work? Ultimately, they say, it's about making work more flexible.
That would be great. New Work has its origins in Frijthof Bergmann and means more than just becoming more flexible. New Work, as Bergmann formulated it more than 20 years ago, is an extensive socio-philosophical vision of work with far-reaching goals, intended as an alternative to capitalism and socialism. Work has to give people autonomy and be truly meaningful. But the goals of New Work go far beyond the workplace, for example: eliminating global poverty and stopping the waste of natural resources and the destruction of the climate. And there’s something else that we shouldn’t forget, beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic: the “new normal” can’t just be the answer to a virus. There have been – and still are – fundamental developments whose threat potential is not dissimilar to that of the virus. And they will remain with us even after COVID-19 has passed.
The driver is the desire for meaningful and self-determined work...
We’ve certainly experienced a great deal of autonomy in recent weeks. Many of us were working from home and had a wide variety of new challenges to master. Some of us were on our own, while others had children that they had to look after in parallel to their work. And what happened? Everything we’ve seen indicates that we’ve handled this freedom with aplomb, thriving from the increasingly autonomous, self-organized work: we’ve become more productive, healthier, and more satisfied – and all that during a pandemic! For me, this proves that New Work is worth it: when we have the opportunity to do meaningful, autonomous work that matches our skill set, the result is satisfaction, motivation, and good business results.
What is hybrid working and what are the challenges?
Right now, the term “hybrid work” is used primarily to describe the mix of working remotely from home and going to the office that we’re organizing right now. It is also used to describe the compatibility of agile work and classic project management.
Please be more specific...
For the former, we see three different cases. The first is that some of the colleagues are at the office, working together. The second is that all the colleagues are in different locations and working together remotely. Both of these cases can be organized relatively well. We have well-equipped offices and collaboration tools, like Webex and the rest, that enable effective virtual collaboration. The coexistence of these two forms is sometimes referred to as “hybrid work.” But it only becomes truly hybrid – and challenging – when some of the colleagues are working together in one room and another set of employees connects remotely. This requires excellent technical equipment in the room where the colleagues are working, for example multiple microphones distributed throughout the room, cameras that point at the speaker automatically, and so on. And tremendous discipline from everyone. In the best practice, everyone has activated their notebook cameras, but on mute; there are no side discussions, no documentation on flip charts, no rustling papers, no glasses near the microphones, and so on. Even the best teams have trouble doing this really well. The “one person, one line” principle has proven effective here: if there are any colleagues who can’t be in the room, everyone should log in remotely.
And what is the second case?
The latter case, the compatibility of agile and classic work, is more complicated when it comes to getting the best of both worlds effectively. It is possible, for example, to use one method in certain project phases and the other in other phases. Particularly in the beginning, for instance, if the product vision isn’t that clear yet, you could start with an agile method and then, later on in development, when the product vision has been clearly described, switch over to classic. Or you can develop parts of a product, like apps, with agile methods, but others with classic methods, like setting up the necessary cloud infrastructure. Ideally, the team will decide which method is the most reasonable for the task at hand.
How should we imagine the new leadership?
Leadership takes place at many levels here, all on an equal footing: both disciplinary and functional. We need the excellent technical experts and visionaries just as much as we need the emphatic team lead who ensures that skills continue to grow and evolve. And leadership will become participatory, because the challenges are too complex for any one person to deal with them effectively alone. As a result, leadership tasks will be performed by different roles, depending on the situation at hand. This means it is no longer simply about “leading”; it’s more about “being led”. How good are we at letting ourselves be led? And how good are we at letting go? The most difficult thing about these changed behaviors for “classic managers” is letting go. It feels strange if you’re no longer constantly “needed” or “know everything (better)”. And it demands a kind of consistency within the company, in which managers are no longer assessed on whether they can provide information on all subjects or whether they have “everything under control”.
What will our working world look like in five years?
In our rapidly changing world, five years are a small eternity. Nonetheless, certain basic properties won’t change. People are social beings and we need to interact with each other. What will change, however, is that we won’t necessarily have to be in the same physical space anymore. Social intranets and enhanced collaboration tools will be able to replace water cooler discussions to a very large extent. We’ll still have the water coolers, but we won’t need them as much to establish social proximity or share information. It will be normal to hold employee feedback and development meetings virtually. Conference calls and videoconferencing will replace air travel. Instead of the office (or office at home) determining where the work as done, we will decide for ourselves when, where, and how we will work. And we will have more options for doing so. The boundaries between business and personal life will become even more blurry for some of us. Those who do not want this will still be able to draw clear lines. We will work more asynchronously, that is, coordinating and sharing information will no longer be tied to core working times. Instead, everything will be documented transparently and made available through tools. Our offices will turn more into places for gathering, for conferring a sense of identity, and working on solutions to complex problems together – which are then better shifted to specifically designed technology or creative spaces. The shared desk as we know it will likely disappear. Instead, we will see more flexible offers like WeWork – even for major corporations.