Interview with our head of HR Dagmar Henkel

How New Work and the Pandemic Change Our Working World

We spoke with Dagmar Henkel, a long-standing HR executive and head of HR at Babtec since 2019, about the opportunities and tasks that companies now expect in terms of meaningfulness, leadership and corporate culture.

Almost overnight, the whole of Germany went into the home office – at least all areas where it was somehow possible. This made the flexibilization of the workplace, a core element of the New Work movement previously viewed critically in many companies, a reality. The transformation that our working world has experienced in recent months is groundbreaking. A time “after” will no longer be like a time “before”.

Hello Mrs. Henkel, thank you very much for taking time for this interview today! New Work was already a big topic before Covid-19.

What is actually behind the keyword “New Work”?

The term “New Work” is older than you might think, it was created in the 1970s. Frithjof Bergmann, a social philosopher, saw people in the working world as a misused instrument and the working conditions as inhumane. He contrasted this with his idea of New Work, in which work is the vehicle for people to realize themselves. Behind this lies the human image of a creative being who wants to be effective. In his own time, however, Bergmann could convince only few people.

That has changed fundamentally in the meantime. Today, the term is a collective tank for various modern work models and methods, including flexible work forms such as job sharing, agile work methods such as Scrum, as well as work place autonomy, working time autonomy, digital collaboration and much, much more. What all these approaches have in common is that they pursue the goal of meaningful, enjoyable work. Self-realization and self-determination are decisive elements of this attitude towards work.

Start-ups have played a major role in the spread of New Work. Here, work was often organized differently from the outset; there was a new understanding of what people should do in the company. As more and more start-ups were successful with this approach, this made the larger, established companies increasingly nervous. After all, being established was less and less an argument for choosing a company or staying with one; the young professionals had developed different demands in terms of meaningfulness and flexibility.

It also became increasingly clear that New Work is not just about methods, but that this type of meaningful, flexible work is above all about attitude and values. In the New Work context, it is important to focus on people, to believe in people and to be convinced that together we can create the best.

Agile working methods, such as Scrum in software development, are an integral part of the New Work portfolio. How Scrum is used at our company, you can read in the article about the development of our software.

How has the pandemic affected our idea of a modern working world in recent months?

In coaching you would say: Corona had an intervention character. In the coaching context, an intervention is a question that triggers a new perspective and a rethinking. Corona has helped New Work and the digitalization of the working world to achieve a breakthrough. Because suddenly, this virus was there and we had to reorganize everything very spontaneously to protect the employees. And the most exciting thing: suddenly things became possible that were previously unthinkable. This is the great discovery and also development that we can and must take with us from this time: Corona has forced us to put people at the center of our actions and we have achieved more than we would have thought possible before the pandemic.

Of course, it was also a great challenge to deal with the new tools on the one hand, but on the other hand also to structure ourselves and learn anew what work means now. Because suddenly, work and private life got mixed up. The first child to interrupt the video conference was perhaps still an oops moment. But then it became normal that the kids, too, flitted through the picture, that the doorbell rang because the parcel carrier was coming.

Another challenge for many employees was the need to show that they were working. A symbol for this is the status display of collaboration tools, which jumps from green to yellow. The mouse is then very quickly wiggled to quickly turn green again. The yellow display has caused discomfort at one or the other. This clearly shows us how much time we will need until we really live the idea behind New Work. We are all about performance and above all about being seen to perform. Corona has triggered something as an intervention, but until we fill it with life and feel comfortable with it – until then a lot of water will still be flowing down the Wupper.

In New Work approaches, corporate culture is often praised as the key to successful cooperation.

What is so important about corporate culture in connection with New Work?

This deep joy about what I do, where I do it and for whom I do it has a lot to do with the corporate culture. In the evenings, I enthusiastically tell my friends about my projects at work when the corporate culture is right. It requires that I am surrounded by people who share my individual values, beliefs and interests. And if companies fail to communicate to their employees the meaning of the company’s existence, they cannot work together ideally.

Often we think corporate culture simply too short. After all, fruit baskets do not make a good corporate culture. I read the other day about the great concept of the company as a “cultural filling station”. This will become even more important in the future, especially with regard to digitalization and the home office. In the company, I should be able to recharge my batteries with the culture, with convictions, with trust and appreciation, with a “good to see you”, with loyalty and fairness, a shared, positive culture of mistakes. If the actions in the company, both internally and externally, are based on authentic, jointly lived values, then we have a living corporate culture.

The company should become a cultural filling station for all employees.

And what does that mean for the leaders of today and tomorrow?

New Work not only affects the corporate culture, but also very intensively the leadership culture. After all, the values of self-realization, personal responsibility and freedom naturally don’t work when I have a 1970s style leader in front of me, who rumbles his orders and expects only their execution.

As a leader, I have to put myself in the place of my employees. It may sound trivial, but it is not. Because good leadership means above all: you have to like people! If I don’t like people and I’m not interested in them, I can never empathize with them, understand them and accept their differences. We need leaders who act as role models, who exemplify the implementation of the corporate values on a daily basis and who support the employees. There is a term that I personally find quite wonderful because it describes it so succinctly, and that is “empowerment”. It means that managers empower their employees to develop themselves and to take on new tasks and challenges. Control gives way to trust and teamwork; leaders become coaches and meet their employees at eye level.

Leaders should also empower their team for willingness to change and the courage to try new things. Especially in the current time of absolute disruption, we need employees with the attitude “I don’t know yet how we’re going to manage this, but we’ll get through it together and we’ll make it work”. Resilience, the psychological resistance, is an important key term here. The higher one’s own feeling of self-efficacy, the greater the likelihood that employees will be able to deal with the situation resiliently and productively in situations such as a pandemic. This is exactly what empowerment is.

Modern leaders ensure that their employees work independently and effectively.

Existential fears, children in homeschooling, worries about loved ones – there are many new burdens for employees. 

What should employers do now?

I would like to reformulate the question into “What should human beings do now?” I think communication, staying in touch with each other, is the means of choice – always, but especially at this time. There should be room for the very simple interpersonal questions, even if we don’t share an office right now. Because a very important factor is missing in working at a distance, even though we can perceive elements such as gestures, facial expressions and voice via video conferences. But we can perceive the vibes, the feeling of well-being or even tension much better if we are in the same room. Therefore we should communicate with each other now even more than before, be transparent, be human and be aware that we need each other to support each other. Because we are definitely in an exceptional situation – so it is all the more important to always have an open ear and a friendly word as well as to show mutual sympathy.

Working from home is the trend topic during the Corona pandemic.

How do you see the home office: curse or blessing?

It’s a blessing to have found out how productive and efficient we are in the home office. That was really sensational. We have proven that we can do it and many people have experienced very positive aspects of the home office. I have a quiet time there, can focus without distraction and can immerse myself completely in topics.

But there is also another side. It is a curse when I lose human interaction. We are all feeling beings. We sense when someone else is in the room, and that is a very important sensory perception for us. As social beings we need each other and we have to appreciate this togetherness. Permanent isolation alone at home is simply not good for us.

The great art here will be to find the right balance. We are now challenged to think agile and just give it a try, to gain experience and also to be open for several variations, because we humans are different. We should ask ourselves what we want to achieve by working in an office. Let’s think again of the company as a cultural filling station: Then working in the office would be ideal for all those tasks where teamwork is required. And the home office is perhaps the right solution if we want to fully concentrate on our work.

Therefore, an incredibly exciting time lies ahead of us now, during which we can continue to work with the knowledge we have gained and gain further experience on topics such as how to deal with working hours and location. So that we can approach the New Work ideal of a meaningful work that gives pleasure, enables identification with the values of the company and turns the company into a cultural filling station.

Lea-Maria Anger

Lea-Maria Anger

Blog editor and humanities scholar with the mission to report on exciting topics from the world of quality. Her motto: always stay curious.

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