Agility and Social Partnership 4.0

Will Agile Work Models Be Defeated by Co-Determination?

From the Workplace Environment to Work Organization

From the very beginning, the debate about the digitalization of the working world has given rise to many new and different issues among social partners. It quickly became obvious, however, that this was only the first step – the minimum requirement, so to speak – towards enabling companies to master digital transformation. In the meantime, there is a consensus about the use of new digital opportunities for the creation of a workplace environment characterized by spatial and temporal flexibility that goes hand in hand with the abolition of a culture of physical presence and executive suites. This shift has certainly been brought about by a desire for enhanced efficiency (among other factors, with respect to office space and communication) and the demands of the staff for greater freedom in the structuring of their lifestyles. The exponential rate of technological development coupled with the change in values in the up and coming generations that it has itself accelerated has made the implementation of New Work an inescapable necessity for companies that want to be appealing to the future employees who will secure their survival. That was the situation (although in drastically simplified form). The conflicts in the social partnership arising from these circumstances have in the meantime been explored in depth and can be resolved in harmony with existing worker protection rights by such means as exemplary works agreements and gentlemen's agreements based on trust.

Agilität und Sozialpartnerschaft 4.0

Now it is impossible to ignore the ignition of the second stage on the path to digital transformation. At the heart of this phase are the changes in working methods and work organization. Agility is the slogan of the day, and once again social partner and management are facing each other across the table to talk about changes in areas subject to co-determination.

Agility and co-determination: What exactly are we talking about?

The term “agility” (ability to move quickly and easily) implies by its very definition that there are no clear standards or patterns that must be implemented without the least divergence. The concept here is one of pronounced flexibility of content that is to be integrated into the working world in various forms, depending on what elements must be emphasized in the specific situation. There is now a broad and colorful world of terms used to describe various methods and organizations, but they will not be the subject of detailed discussion here. Certain fundamental characteristics of ability can be determined, however, that are capable of sparking conflicts during implementation and throwing up roadblocks on the road to success. Yet for some operations even a delay can mean the end of the line because of the rapid pace of business today – whatever their current market strength may be. To clarify, it must be said that – as was the case for the realization of New Work as well – the blame for failure cannot by any means be attributed to only one side. Agility also includes synergetic moments and involves losses for both negotiating sides (or, as a minimum, what are felt to be losses).

We are assuming here that company management starts out with agile convictions and profound knowledge of agile methods and organizational models as well as the honest conviction of the need to realize them in the company without hesitation. We will also assume the (recommended) ideal case in which adequate agile models appropriate to the needs of the future teams can be found from among the many different options available. Moreover, the social partner has been involved in the change process in exemplary fashion right from the beginning. For the moment, we will ignore other impediments from the rest of the corporate environment, especially those found in long-standing corporate group structures (even though they naturally must be given the greatest attention, especially since they can effectively bring down agile structures even after the latter have been implemented).

What approach is to be taken toward the social partner?

The instruments safeguarding worker protection rights in Germany are effective and can also be easily brought into position to oppose the implementation of agility insofar as the employees’ representatives regard this to be necessary. This would be the ultimate failure because the concept of agility is not really contrary to employees’ interests.

  1. Become familiar with the history of the social partnership

Taking a look at history, especially the preceding development in the role of the social partner and co-determination during the major upheavals of the past 50 years, is a helpful way of preparing to counter arguments for rejection that may spring up at a later time. Waves of rationalization, especially those resulting from automation of industrial production (Work 3.0), led and still lead unceasingly to restructuring programs that must be negotiated with the social partner. Virtually all restructuring activities, regardless of the glittering names they may have been given, ultimately have as their goal the increase in efficiency. The most popular lever to accomplish this is the reduction of personnel. In the past, employers frequently misled their social partners and presented as innovation measures that served no purpose but the redundancy of the workforce. Most of the time, however, this lack of imagination did not go undiscovered, and as time passed, skepticism became the knee-jerk response. Viewed in such a setting, it is easy to understand how agility can be seen as nothing but a program of work intensification. This is the point where employers must succeed in clearly demonstrating how the intended transformation by its very nature differs from these past attempts.

  1. Gain the social partners’ trust

Unlike other measures, the aim of agility – putting it briefly – is not simply to work more, but instead to work differently. Moreover, in these days of shortages of qualified employees, reducing personnel in the innovation and development departments, where people are often working agilely even now, as well as other areas is hardly a recipe for success.

It will not be easy to gain trust because agile procedures can all too easily be misused to cement the old ways. Just to mention a few of the typical mistakes:

  • The regular retrospectives and iterations typical of agility are supposed to foster an open culture of mistakes. The idea is to correct the wrong targets at an early stage or adapt them to a fast-changing environment so that (for instance) products are not created that have in the meanwhile become useless. But these processes can also be misused as control-only instruments to secure permanently the unilaterally demanded work progress.
  • The same is true when the consensus reached during the determination of work packages is weakened contrary to agile principles and straightforward work intensification takes place.
  • Even agile, skill-based pool organizations that are supposed to ensure that the right people are working on the right topics can violate protection rights relating to reassignment and relocation of employees through irrelevant instructions when the self-organization that is actually intended here is ignored.

In all these cases, no one can expect the social partner to allow greater freedom – in contrast to all the previous restructuring actions – by refraining from the use of its instruments just because the buzzword “agility” appears.

The works council must be able to determine for itself that the planned agility and its benefits for employees and company will be consistently practiced. Only then will the typical effect be achieved, one that is simultaneously in keeping with the traditional demands of the social partner such as for more input and influence of the operative personnel through their supervisors, for more self-determination in work, for professional careers, and for personal development of individual workers, to mention just a few. Much like the reference to the option to exchange a product in retail trade, no questions asked (which is one of the most effective sales arguments), the opportunity for the social partner to observe the course of events over a certain length of time without making any binding commitments beforehand can establish the required trust.

  1. Agile and open to results: Works Agreement 4.0

So it is self-evident that works agreements of this type should also be based on agile principles both during their process of their creation and in their content. This becomes possible when council members are involved and informed about the planned agile strategy from the start of planning for the realization of agility. A valid concept for such an approach to the upcoming negotiations is therefore indispensable. In contrast to usual practice, complexity and depth of detail in the regulations should be sharply reduced in this case. Alternatively, negotiations can initially be limited to modules concerning specific topics. All of this favors regulations that are open in their results and that can be fleshed out over time on the basis of gained experience. This simplifies and shortens the negotiations tremendously and avoids the irrelevant “bartering” that is so frequently seen here.

A prerequisite is a shortening of the usual terms, including the rejection of the familiar regulation for the agreement’s continued effectiveness and the move instead in the direction of a decision made at the beginning for a return to the status quo or a regulation that is favorable to the employees.

All of these principles make an agreement within a reasonable period more likely, presuming that the negotiations are truly end-to-end and the involved parties are directly authorized to conclude the agreement.


When the right communication and approach to the social partner is taken from the beginning of the transformation, including new types of agreements that are also agile in their character, it is possible not only to gain the support of the social partner, but even, in the ideal case, to have the partner act as guardian and driver for the success of the agile model. First and foremost, there must be the will to bring about a comprehensive transformation of the culture in the company that is fully and totally understood by the company’s top management and all other executives and that has their whole-hearted commitment. That must be felt in the social partnership as well. As always, what is strictly prohibited is the pursuit of irrelevant motives, in the worst case in the form of maintaining rituals or antagonism that will presumably aid in re-election on the one side or – just as presumably – to retain power on the other.

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