New Work: Unlearn the Inherited Way to Work
Work is the problem
In an age of “hustle culture” where the grind is glorified and “getting that bread” is top priority, work seems to be at the center of nearly everyone’s focus. But in the last couple of years, after a pandemic led to remote and hybrid working, people reconnected with what truly mattered to them, leading to “The Great Resignation.” Suddenly, grinding away at an office 80 hours a week to please a micromanager for minimal pay and benefits wasn’t the dream. Now, people want to work on new terms, in a way that benefits both the company and the individual.
So what’s in the way of individuals, teams, and organizations from doing their best work (and enjoying it)? If you ask the individual, they might say the problem is too many meetings, lack of established priorities, an unattainable workload, or even the wrong manager. Ask the company, and leaders may claim that while everyone works hard, there’s a lack of agility, accountability, and ownership.
The typical “solutions” to this problem stem from the all-too-common principle that to be productive, we have to abide by the traditional rules of work: The workday starts at 9 am. Be in your cubicle before the boss walks in. Managers are meant to oversee every menial task. Work is distributed to respective departments.
But why do we continue to refer back to the “solutions” that got us into the predicament in the first place? What if we tried something radically different? Challenged the boundaries of this inherited organizational system and replaced it with something that opens up new avenues of productivity, collaboration, and employee enjoyment?
Would we see better work? Would we see happier people? Yes and yes.
The avenue to this change is to unlearn the ways of work we’ve inherited and to implement New Work concepts into our organizations.
What is New Work?
New Work is a leadership attitude that allows people to live and work in unison. Employers can enact this approach by encouraging self-organization, supporting individual goals, empowering positive leadership, and implementing agile systems.
Why is New Work important?
Times are changing and so are workplace norms. As one of the most influential generations, millennials are projected to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025 and are demanding New Work conditions as a baseline for employment. In order for your organization to win the war on talent and ensure profits in the future, you need to consider New Work methods and structures.
Where does New Work come from?
The original concept of New Work was first developed in the 1970s by Frithjof Bergmann, a social and economic philosopher. He believed that people could make a living while maintaining a sense of freedom to be passionate about the things that matter to them. Essentially, an autocratic workplace with antiquated systems traps people into a vicious cycle of believing that they live to work. Rather, work should have more periods of open-ended and personal time to foster creativity that is then translated into work. While the definition of the term has evolved a bit, the foundational principles have remained consistent.
But before we jump into some New Work methods, let’s take a look at how we got here in the first place.
The itty bitty history of work
Even the itty bitty-est of stories should start from the beginning. The earliest perception of work was based purely on substance: how can I keep myself alive and thriving? Think about the cavemen who forged for food, made clothing from fur, and created shelters from the natural environment. Work was based purely on survival. Throughout time, we figured out how to utilize tools to make work easier and even find ways to make a surplus of goods that led to trade and competition.
Jump to the Renaissance, when people believed that they could make a living by producing goods and services catered to individual skills, leading to a growing presence of craftsmen and artisans. Just after this period, during the Reformation, western societies began to link the idea of work to a moral one, where there is dignity in hard labor. Regardless of a person’s occupation, work was virtuous and connected to a higher purpose.
Fast forward through the timeline even further, the 19th century greatly changed how work was perceived. The Industrial Revolution was characterized by the mass production of goods, and organizations prioritized output and profits over the talents and capabilities of individuals. This period brought about the dangerous belief that productivity correlates to personal worth which still resides with us today.
The cocktail of all these histories brought about the hierarchy and working methods we know today. Mix in management, economies of scale, and commerce and voila, our inherited “old work” system is complete.
So why not challenge the outdated idea that work is about survival, virtue, and output? That’s where the concept of “New Work” comes in.
Out with the old work, in with the New Work
While New Work doesn’t have a set of best practices, if we had to break it down, New Work would consider three elements in the workplace: who does the work, how work is done, and why that work is done.
Who does the work?
When it comes to the person on the job, New Work methods open the door to collaboration outside the typical departmental roles. Of course, everyone will have their own tasks that maximize their strengths, but New Work organizations will offer opportunities to come together with those outside your immediate team. The inclusion of individuals with different backgrounds fosters cross-departmental collaboration, leading to more ideas and shared workloads that allow employees to utilize and develop skills they might not otherwise use in their own line of work.
How is work done?
New Work puts less emphasis on the logistics of a particular project, such as when and where it's done. Rather, it focuses on completing the incentives that make up the overarching goal. You should trust your team to accomplish the tasks wherever they’re the most productive, whether that’s remote, in the office, or hybrid. Time of day shouldn’t matter either, as long as it’s finished by the deadline.
Organizations need to set team members up for success by providing the correct tools, resources, and processes to encourage this change. In most cases, technology is at the forefront of this change by giving individuals a way to stay connected and productive through various software, online tools, and applications. Whether your team is in-person or hybrid, it’s important to designate time and spaces for collaboration.
Why is the work done?
To maximize the benefits of New Work, goal-setting and well-defined expectations are key. Individuals want to work towards something bigger that fulfills a sense of purpose in an organization. This implies that each employee understands how their daily tasks and quarterly goals align with the team and organizational OKRs. Having a team that knows why their work contributes to the bigger picture helps connect purpose to the work being done.
Leadership in New Work
There’s no doubt that leadership can be tough, and it’s gotten even more difficult in recent years. But leadership is also one of the most impactful positions for implementing New Work into an organization. It will take a shift in mindset and a redistribution of responsibilities, but the benefits will quickly outweigh the tricky transition.
One way to start is to nail down your company goals and values and how you plan on executing them with a New Work mentality. When individuals believe in an organization’s strategy, they’ll exhibit these characteristics throughout their work and interactions, creating a culture of New Work. This collective cultural leadership is a great first step in your transition!
How to implement New Work practices
When putting New Work into practice, organizations tend to have various approaches. One company’s approach may or may not work for another; it all depends on the type of work, team, and leadership. Here’s how Collato implements New Work:
Firstly, we have a cross-functional team-based organizational structure with a mostly-flat hierarchy. We all take an active role in decision-making, which reinforces the fact that our ideas and contributions directly impact the company's success and progress. While we technically have different teams with different strategies, we all strive towards a common goal and exhibit our company values along the way. This leadership style fosters an innovative exchange of ideas and information between team members with various skills and expertise as well as advances our belief in New Work culture.
Secondly, we have the tools to be successful. Of course, we’re equipped with all the technology and applications to get us on the same page. But beyond that, we make sure that everyone has the option to work in a way that makes sense to them. For example, if a team member finds themself more productive in the evenings, then they can start later in the day. Or if someone prefers working from home, that’s also okay. What’s important is that the individual has the freedom and toolkit to work to the best of their abilities.
Our office was specifically designed to facilitate communication and collaboration in a hybrid workplace. There is an open desk plan without assigned seats where we work together regardless of team role. But if you need a peaceful place to concentrate or somewhere to brainstorm with others, we have spaces for that too. If you’re working with someone who’s remote, we have soundproof booths for virtual meetings and conversations. We wanted our office to be a place of creativity and inspiration for our team, not a mandatory workspace where managers can keep an eye on employees.
New work is the solution
New work is hard to pin down because it doesn’t fit into a working category that already exists. But it usually entails linear leadership, cross-departmental collaboration, the option for hybrid or remote working, and flexible working days and hours. Despite its complexity, most employees feel the need for New Work - to live and work harmoniously. While thought to be an unobtainable concept in the past, now we know that it’s not only possible but extremely effective. But in order to be implemented successfully, we first have to unlearn the old ways in which we work.