Company ReBuilding or New Work: Which Path Leads to the Goal?

The topic of New Work continues to be at the top of the agenda for many corporate leaders. How will we work in the future and what course must be set today on the way there? Detecon has also been working intensively on this topic for several years and has accompanied many companies and corporations on their way to the 'New Work'. In an interview with Max Hantke and Alexander Dören, the experts Lars Attmer and Jan Pfeiffer answer questions about the holistic consulting approaches Company ReBuilding and New Work, including the dimensions People, Places, Tools, Principles & Regulations.

Why does the topic of New Work have such potential as a trend, and how does it differ from other topics concerning the future?

Lars Attmer: To start with, New Work must be considered in the context of “humanization of work.” The debate about working conditions in manufacturing – for machine operators, for instance – and the improvement of these conditions has been going on for decades. New Work as we are talking about it today can be seamlessly integrated into this discussion, only today we are looking closely at working conditions in offices. The focus of New Work for this form of value-generating activities is on a greater individualization of each employee going hand in hand with providing meaningfulness within the various aspects of this employment.

Over the course of our years of project experience, we have learned that a holistic implementation of New Work is good not only for employees as individuals, but that this positive effect is reflected throughout the company as a whole.

So New Work shines a brighter spotlight on employees as individuals?

Jan Pfeifer: Right. New Work is based on the assumption that higher value must be attributed to individuals. Various developments on the labor market such as the shortage of specialists, demographic transformation, and the parallel War for Talent are driving this transformation. Conversely, this means for companies that they must rethink their recruiting activities; they can no longer wait for the right applicants to come along. They must actively seek these people out and offer them attractive working conditions. These conditions include a working environment that speaks to the (future) employees on a cultural, technical, and spatial-aesthetic level and that places the performance of every single employee on center stage. After all, the values “self-determination” and “freedom of self-expression” are prized highly on the value scale in our everyday professional lives as well as in our personal environments. New Work serves these values, e.g., by allowing free choice of workplace and working hours.

So why is New Work at times the subject of criticism?

Lars Attmer: There are companies that try to sell an efficiency program under the guise of “New Work.” In this sense, New Work is often misused as an alibi for efforts to achieve a higher concentration on less space and cost savings through desk sharing. A clear distinction must be made here; New Work is not at all suitable for initiatives of this type. To be very specific here: of course there is nothing wrong with using desk sharing to reduce to some degree the use of space if a part of this space is conversely used for the creation of additional room modules such as think tanks, project rooms, etc.

Jan Pfeifer: It should be clear to everyone that New Work is not just a showcase item. Simply investing in new (designer) furniture or works of art cannot be classified as measures to bring about a cultural transformation. Just “sprucing up” the rooms is still far away from a conscious realization of New Work. Quite the contrary – New Work is expressed in factors that are hard to grasp such as corporate culture, work methods, or the nature of collaboration and communication within the company. All too often, these criteria for success are overlooked, I’m afraid.

What must companies take into account if they want to lay a solid foundation for New Work?

Lars Attmer: Essentially, the introduction of New Work means nothing less than revamping the entire organization. There is a plethora of elements that have to be regulated. Let me mention just one point as an example. Large corporations or even midsize businesses at the upper end of the scale have a high diversity of employees with enormous differences in mindset, experience, and convictions. And all these people must be considered during the introduction of New Work. This is true whether they are the type who are of themselves prepared to practice a high level of work-life integration or the ones who want exactly the opposite. Even if companies possibly prefer the one or the other model, they must nevertheless offer an ecosystem in which every employee feels at home.

Jan Pfeifer: There are two absolutely essential factors for success during the implementation of New Work that, regrettably, are frequently overlooked or underestimated. First, there must be a driver for the topic within the company that sets things in motion and attaches a certain level of importance to events. This is where top management is called upon to drive forward a new kind of work and culture. Second, a decisive factor for the success of New Work is a participative approach of all decision-makers affected by the initiative. The focus of the topic is on the units IT, HR, organization, and real estate.

What progress do you see German companies having made in the direction of New Work?

Lars Attmer: The German corporate landscape is highly diversified. There are some companies that have progressed a long way in terms of future drivers of success such as agility. Pioneers here are clearly companies from the United States operating in Germany; they bring along with them an emphasis on sales, mobile work, and trust-based working hours and place. We classify companies like these high up on our degree of maturity scale. On the other side, we see industries where the picture is completely different. Traditional midsize companies or civil service, for instance, have initiated significantly fewer measures moving in this direction.

Jan Pfeifer: Germany is currently trying to find the “new way of working” appropriate for its situation. Many companies attempt to transfer approaches used in the USA or Asia directly to their operations; this simply cannot work because different corporate cultures and legal frameworks clash with one another. The development nevertheless demonstrates that New Work is one of the topics that companies, regardless of their size, are taking to heart. However, the degree of manifestation and the paths taken to achieve the goals frequently differ completely.

To summarize, I see German companies as generally being on the right track. Nevertheless, we see that the holistic view of the topic is missing and that the level of interaction within the organizations is often inadequate. In the long run, this can have an impact on the success of these initiatives.

What role will New Work play in the organization of tomorrow?

Lars Attmer: I believe that in the future companies in all sectors will have to act with significantly greater flexibility than they do or even can do today. To meet this need, we have developed a consulting approach that is called Company ReBuilding. Taking this approach, we start from the assumption that organizations function like living organisms. Successful companies will in the future no longer describe their activities and the relationships of responsibilities among one another in the form of boxes in an organizational chart, but will instead function as cells working largely autonomously, but in their totality serving an overriding objective. Realizing this concept requires the corresponding corporate culture as the foundation. And New Work proves to be a necessary prerequisite for the realization.

So you view New Work in a new context, as one of several prerequisites for the successful renewal in companies, so to speak?

Lars Attmer: New Work is the cultural fertile ground for development in the direction of Company ReBuilding. For one, employees in autonomously working cells need to have the appropriate mindset, but, for another, they must be equipped with the right tools and room space if they are to be able to work efficiently. With regard to the mindset, we need employees who think and act on their own initiative. The focus is clearly on the topic of entrepreneurship. And New Work encourages these traits.

:Jan Pfeifer New Work has three functions within the Company ReBuilding approach. First, New Work acts as an enabler. It is essential that organizations are already practicing, living, and thinking in terms of New Work to a large degree. The opportunity for formation of a nucleus and for autonomous development of, or work on, a new business model is inevitably dependent on the creation of free space for individual employees. Our observation, however, is that the entirety of the four dimensions is not extensive enough in most companies for them to be able to think about Company ReBuilding at all.

In its second role, New Work acts as a catalyst for Company ReBuilding. The four dimensions of New Work form the framework for the cell formation as well as for the work within a cell and among cells. In this context, New Work defines the spatial and legal components of the cells.

In a more or less loose association of autonomous, agile cells, a link is required. This is the third function of New Work. For one, this link can take the form of a cultural bond in that the self-understanding of every cell is defined with respect to the provision of products or services. Moreover, New Work determines the work method within the cells. The interchange within and among the cells is assured by the Tools dimension with the aid of communication and collaboration platforms.

Is New Work a necessary and/or adequate condition for the introduction of Company ReBuilding?

Lars Attmer: New Work is necessary, but not adequate. New Work is a part of Company ReBuilding, but it can be introduced completely independently, even in its entirety. This is the path we are taking at this time in a majority of our projects.

The Company ReBuilding approach, including New Work, is already being tested within Detecon. What has been your experience with this?

Lars Attmer: We introduced New Work in the company more than 5 years ago. That is why the approach is now living practice and has been part of the everyday lives of all our consultants here in the company for years. We introduced Company ReBuilding half a year ago. We have learned a number of things for ourselves through the newness of the approach. For instance, that the individual cells, despite all the agile approaches and a strong focus on self-leadership of every single individual, need to be steered. Tailoring and dimensioning this new generation of steering roles in the future is a topic we are currently devoting more attention to. The special feature here is that the roles are not fulfilled completely by different employees as is the case today, but that the roles must be performed in addition to daily business. This demands a high level of discipline from everyone.

We are currently in a process of constant change of cell DNA. The results of this process are expressed, for instance, in a reduction in the size of the governing bodies. On the other hand, however, new roles are also being created. Regulatory policies should be aimed at supporting the work of all and simultaneously at causing as little effort as possible.

Jan Pfeifer: We have taken a necessary step with the introduction of Company ReBuilding. To come back to the state of the level of maturity, the status quo before its introduction did not correspond to our organizational model. Detecon as a whole, by the way, still does not correspond to this model even today because we continue to be subdivided into relatively rigid silos. This makes a goal-oriented approach to the market difficult, particularly at the interface with other Practices. Within our unit, however, this is already functioning very well, which also happens because the two approaches complement each other. While New Work describes the procedural organization, Company ReBuilding has more to do with the structural organization.

What do you view as the key messages during the interplay of New Work and Company ReBuilding?

Lars Attmer: The orchestration of the three dimensions People, Places, and Tools is decisive for the success of both New Work and Company ReBuilding. Moreover, there is a clear focus in Company ReBuilding on the topic of structures.

Jan Pfeifer: It is like every change – companies must not be afraid of change. Whether New Work or, even more comprehensively, Company ReBuilding: the resulting upheavals should be seen as opportunities and promoters of new working methods and not as threats. We do not want to deny that a profound transformation will take place on the labor market and in the number of jobs in the coming years because of digitalization. However, at the same time, numerous new jobs will be created, and many of them will offer people much more freedom in their work. Freedom to do what machines cannot do: creative, innovative, and collaborative work. That is something we should really look forward to, not fear.

Jan, Lars, thank you for the interview.