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The truth about New Work: reality vs. imagination

7 min read

"I don't want realism. I want -- magic. [...]
I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth.
And if that's a sin, then let me be damned for it!"

(Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire) [1]

The year is 2020. We have just entered a new decade, an event that often gives rise to a great deal of discussion about what is and about what is to come. In fact, there are a lot of things to come. In particular, the future of the world of work, commonly referred to as New Work, has been the subject of in-depth discussions for some time now. Now that we have almost completed the first half of the year, we can say that change is happening much more quickly than many would have imagined, apparently the world is on a highway towards New Work.

The situation surrounding the Corona Pandemic is particularly encouraging the progress of new ways of working. We are talking about home office, flexible working hours and digital collaboration. These are all things we expect from this new "Work 4.0". A large part of the workforce has desired all this for a long time. However, is what New Work promises really what we can expect in reality or is it just what is ought to be the truth?

Let's get on that "Streetcar named Desire" towards reality to see what is waiting at the final stop: Is it what New Work promises, what the population hopes for or a completely different reality?

New Work promises more flexibility for both companies and employees

The company is crying out for flexibility. According to a survey by EY, flexibility is high on employees' wish list, right behind the demand for competitive salaries and benefits. After all, almost 10,000 full-time employees from the US, UK, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, India, China and Japan were surveyed.


New Work promises this flexibility - for both employees and employers. Digitization makes it possible to work independently of time and place, as it networks society at all levels. In the future, teams will no longer have to meet in one place to work together and will therefore be more flexible in terms of time. Team Members are part of distributed teams, they work from home, on the road and on an independent basis. Usual office hours are no longer mandatory.

What society expects and desires

You can see, flexibility is an important issue and New Work is designed to enable it. But what does "flexibility in the workplace" actually mean?

A better work-life balance

Usually, flexibility is associated with adjustable working hours and the ability to work from home or on the road. Employees would like to have more time for family and friends besides work; they wish to reconcile work and private life; to receive improved balance. Commuters in particular benefit from avoiding long journeys between home and office, and being able to decide on working hours individually is beneficial to social life - at least this is what employees imagine.

According to Eurostat 18.3 million and 8.3% of employees in the European Union commute to work from one region to another. In Germany, this number is slightly higher than the European average and concerns around 10% of professionals. It’s easy to imagine that having the possibility to work outside the office is particularly tempting for this group.

Companies hope this will motivate their staff and save costs by reducing the need for physical workplaces. A more flexible working model is said to be the solution.

Better opportunities on the job market

For many, New Work involves flexibility on the market. If you can work wherever you want, your place of residence is no longer tied to the location of the company (or vice versa), which can be particularly advantageous for people from areas with high unemployment rates. There is an increased supply of potential employers.

Employers can also benefit from this. Companies do see potential in greater flexibility in their employee resource planning. With the widespread access to fast internet and thanks to the digital tools that facilitate daily work no matter where team members are located, it’s possible to cooperate with people from every corner of the world. This is particularly tempting when the local talent pool is limited or when a company needs very specific skills and/or foreign languages that are not popular in the region.

Alternative working arrangements are also part of this flexibility - freelancers, for example, who do not have a binding agreement on full-time employment. According to the World Economic Forum's "The Future of Jobs" report, 50% of employers expect a noticeable decline in full-time employment in the company and want to hire more freelancers instead.

Flexibility in reality: It's a double-edged sword

Flexibility at the expense of security

More flexibility gives employees and employers more freedom. On the other hand, it also takes away a certain degree of security and, for freelancers in particular, the legal protection that in many countries is only guaranteed to employees in a permanent, unlimited employment relationship.

This form of contract has not only advantages for employers, after all, employees can quit at any time. Collaboration in companies with a high percentage of flexible workers is characterized by a constant turnover. It is more difficult to make strategic deployment planning because of the irregular presence of employees. There is a greater need for onboarding and employees need to familiarize themselves again after long interruptions.

Flexibility at the expense of commuication & team spirit

New Work is characterized by the use of digital solutions that enable communication over long distances. Well structured team chats, audio and video telephony can improve communication within the team. However, they are not a complete substitute for personal direct exchange. Information can be lost or misunderstood. Even the team spirit suffers from distance, as employees who contact colleagues exclusively via digital solutions often do not feel like they are part of the team.

Companies are still suspicious when it comes to home office, as they fear that employee productivity will decline. It is more difficult for them to compare performance with other employees, and especially when it comes to promotions and salary increases, remote workers are often simply left behind.

However, numerous studies show that home office employees work much more, and also more efficiently, than in the office - by as much as 13% according to Standford University. This can be extremely problematic for employees. It is not visible to everyone how much they work - though, it is usually more than in the office or regulated in their employment contract. The consequence is that employees take on an even greater workload and work even longer, which leads to psychological stress in the long run - a vicious circle. Ultimately, "flexibility" brings exactly the opposite of what it promises - it throws job and leisure time off balance. We are "always on".

New Work relies on flat management structures instead of rigid top-down management

Many companies tempt applicants with the promise of living "horizontal organization". These are portrayed as the absolute opposite of traditional management where a manager takes the reins and instructs and directs the other employees.

flat structures

New working models promise a completely different corporate culture. A modern and hip one in which everyone is equal. This should result in some advantages:

  • short decision-making processes
  • self-determined work
  • more recognition and communication at eye level
  • open feedback culture
  • open and relaxed working atmosphere

What society hopes for

Anyone who hears or reads about flat hierarchies immediately has a certain image in mind. Team members and bosses and treat each other more friendly and pursue goals together as a team. Everyone is equal and everyone is motivated because they feel valued. This is of course an environment in which every employee would like to work.

The advantages of such a corporate culture are obvious to companies as well. Where there are many minds, there are also many ideas, but these will only come to light if employees feel comfortable in their environment and have the feeling that their opinions are valued. Those who feel appreciated and do not need to get every little decision approved are not only more open about their own ideas but also more motivated, because they feel part of a larger picture.

Flat hierarchies in reality

Breaking up and flattening out existing hierarchical constructs is not so easy in reality and there are various reasons for this. For one thing, our society has always been used to fixed hierarchies. Not every employee feels comfortable calling the boss by his first name and the latter may not be too enthusiastic about such a change himself - for example because he feels his authority is being questioned.

Some people feel more comfortable keeping the business world formal and thus separating it from their private life. At this point, the question also arises as to whether, especially with flat hierarchies, there is a risk of boundaries being crossed in business dealings. Does the change towards a more open and "private" corporate culture encourage respectful interaction between employees or does it have exactly the opposite effect?

Further discrepancies appear as soon as the concept is viewed in connection with the desire for better promotion and career opportunities. Where there are no hierarchies, where everyone is on the same level, individuals have difficulty to progress. After all, the fact that employees do not see any opportunities in their careers is one of the most common reasons for them to leave the company.

Let's move away from the individual and look at the situation from the company or team perspective. If there is no leader and a great deal of freedom in decision-making, there is always pressure involved. Who is responsible for what? Making decisions can be overwhelming and if this happens, it can lead to decisions simply not being made. Particularly when changing from traditional to flat hierarchies, there is a high risk that responsibilities remain unclear and are shifted to other colleagues in individual cases. In case important tasks remain uncompleted, there might be disastrous consequences for the team or the company.

New Work comes with a number of benefits, but it takes its toll

Modern approaches and technologies are often presented in flying colours. Proponents focus so much on the benefits that any problems that may arise remain hidden from the wider public. However, poeple must consider the concept of New Work from all aspects. On the one hand, it offers people a freedom, flexibility and comfort that would have been beyond imagination in past decades. However, these benefits take their toll: it requires some adaptability from both companies and employees and also some of the security that the traditional world of work quite naturally brought with it.

[1] Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. Dramatists Play Service Inc. 1953, p. 84.

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Lena Wimmer
About the Author:
Lena Wimmer is Product Marketing Manager at Stackfield. She is passionate about American literary history, great content and cinematography.
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