The term “New Work” often brings to mind concepts such as the work style of the future, or lack of hierarchy, or, of course, a football table in the breakroom. In principle, these are all concepts that offer a vague utopian corporate prophecy, accompanied by the implied demand that any company that wishes to remain relevant should be a New Work acolyte. If, for example, a firm does not offer a work-from-home option and has never piloted a holacracy model, it reads as somehow outdated and undynamic. And yet, with the deluge of different methods out there, companies and managers often find themselves overwhelmed, not knowing what exactly New Work means — losing the big picture, as it were, #OnTheWayToNewWork. And, given the current definition of the term, this makes sense: According to Google, it’s the “totality of modern and flexible forms of [office] work and corporate structure (e.g. telecommuting). Or, upon further research: “New Work describes (...) the working world of the future.”
Given these descriptions, is it possible to explain what New Work actually is? In a word: No. Whenever someone tries to define it, a concrete and universally applicable definition of New Work eludes them. And that’s a good thing.
1. The concept of New Work
New Work is, first and foremost, a concept that seeks to question and shift existing work processes. New Work describes the very process of trying something out — as such, it can offer no concrete definition or universally applicable procedures. It involves analysis and reflection of ourselves and our collaboration, so we can understand what works well for our work as a team, and filter out what doesn’t.
2. New Work cannot be imitated
This also implies that simple mimicry of the so-called forerunners of New Work is insufficient. Granted, if we hire an in-house barista because Google did it, it looks pretty good on the company website. And yet, good coffee on the job does not mean automatically happier employees. Or, in the words of the founding father of New Work, Frithjof Bergmann: “For many, New Work is something that makes work look more attractive, sort of ‘wage labor in a miniskirt’.” Instead, firms should fundamentally alter existing structures based on active questioning of processes.
3. New Work, or the search for meaning
The reason New Work has become such a fraught concept is primarily thanks to the overwhelming expectations that lie behind the concept itself. This is because employees are often looking for meaning in their occupations, or, to put it in an even bigger way: They are looking for meaning in their lives. It’s far from coincidental that the New Work trend has accompanied the proliferation of thousands of self-help in adjacent areas of life: Career is out, and “mindfulness” is in; yoga has reached the status of a religion; the “life coach” business is booming.
But behind all these trends lies the postmodern — a sociological example that might explain the state of our current society. In the process of modernism, our elders tried to free themselves from institutions. The church fell out of favor, but so did membership in other, secular clubs and societies. In postmodernity, we find ourselves now in a condition of total freedom from structures — which, in turn, brings about a major loss of orientation. We are continually having to redefine ourselves, always having to question who we are and, with that, the work we do. This new postmodern situation demands the workplace respond in kind, with more freedom and less structure. But, for corporations, as for individuals, allowing such freedom is quite difficult without some sort of orienting framework. In exploring New Work, companies must answer the call for modern freedom, while at the same time being aware of their employees’ need for meaning and purpose.
Rather than a clearly defined procedure or a clear solution to the major societal issues of our time, New Work can best be seen as a process of redefining structures, by way of questioning and trying things out. Instead of defining a particular result, New Work is, instead, an attitude of exploration and experimentation, in work - and in life, toward new structures that work.