What our working environment most lacks is responsibility for the employee

What our working environment most lacks is responsibility for the employee

An interview with entrepreneur, lecturer and author Lars Vollmer

3/25/2019 By Nick Marten - in parental leave Reading time: 5 Minutes
“Many people fall into the trap of thinking that the working world must become more human,” - with provocative statements beyond the mainstream, Lars Vollmer always manages to cause a stir. He tells us the big misunderstandings of the subject of new work, where we should get to work straight away and why responsibility also lies with the employee.

“New work” is a buzzword, about which there are lots of different ideas and opinions. But what exactly is it really about?

A lot of things get thrown in under the term new work, it always comes with brackets and in my opinion it has lost its sharp edges in general discourse. It does have a conceptual origin, which comes from the Austro-American social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, but nevertheless anything that sounds somehow modern has come to be covered by ‘new work’. It is understood to be a differentiation from the ‘old’, which is very heavily shaped by the principles of Taylorism from the Industrial Age, therefore by instruction, management and control. And - likely the lowest common denominator - this needs an opposite.

The term ‘new work’ quickly brings to mind the idea of table football in the office, motto meeting spaces and home offices. Lots of employers actively promote such benefits when recruiting. What do you make of that?

At first that sounds fantastic. Everything that gets packed into the new work box can warm our hearts. Who would have anything against a more human working environment?

Lars Vollmer “We blunder into an idea if we place our primary focus on humanising the working world.”

Lars Vollmer

But companies only really have a reason to exist if they solve problems for customers who are prepared to pay for the privilege. That may sound cold but at its core it is a truism that in my view has been somewhat forgotten.

I believe we blunder into an idea if we place our primary focus on humanising the working world. It leads us to measures that prioritise making working life more convenient. But the actual work, the reason why people come to the company, continues to be just as dysfunctional as ever and makes people substantially dissatisfied. Despite a fruit basket, free drinks and a ball pool, which only serve to maintain a human façade. I am convinced that people are generally content if they can be effective and successful when working with their colleagues at the company - this is the most basic foundation of a meaningful working life. Lots of today’s organisations, however, make it grotesquely difficult for people to work effectively, outright keeping them from their work. The reason for this is maintaining the organisation logic from the Industrial Age.

What are the biggest mistakes that companies make when it comes to new work?

I really don’t want to suggest that companies only make mistakes in this respect. I observe thoroughly successful transformations, which start from the understanding that the centrally controlled value creation of days gone by can barely take the pressure of competition: too slow, too expensive, too rigid, too old hat. And there, some great solutions are developed, which both perform well and feel very satisfying and meaningful for most employees.

But it doesn’t always work like that. I also observe companies, which, reeled in by a book or an inspiring company story, start more less sincere attempts at self-organisation, which then go wrong. Why? Either they are immediately unmasked by the company culture as an imitation of a management trend, or value creation was already seriously benefiting from informal structures, so the company was - mostly unknowingly - already self-organised in the decisive areas.

Do you see the employer as being solely responsible for the enjoyment of work? Or is the employee also responsible?

For me in my work, responsibility is one of the central terms and relates to far more than just the relationship between employer and employee, but to the same extent also to the relationship between state and citizen. That is also what my new book “Don’t give up your voice - why our country has become ungovernable” is about. These relationships are typically paternalistic, it is - to attempt an analogy - like the relationship between shepherd and sheep.

Lars Vollmer “We live and work in systems, which assume that citizens and employees are not responsible and thus encourage this lack of responsibility.”

Lars Vollmer

The system researcher Frederic Vester once logically said that in an accident you don’t need an airbag to come out of the steering wheel, but a sword, so that the driver learns to drive their car responsibly. So how is a person to learn responsibility if a shepherd is taking responsibility away from them? Or to put it another way, instructing a shepherd to use pressure and limit individual freedom relieves the herd of the responsibility to make their own decision and bear the consequences of this decision. The most serious of these consequences is that there is no more learning.

We live and work in systems, which assume that citizens and employees are not responsible and thus encourage this lack of responsibility. As long as we give the shepherd all of the shaping power and as long as we demand that they take on responsibility for us, they will always establish a role, demand a budget, make central plans and execute these hierarchically from top to bottom and in an authoritarian way. In my opinion, companies (and our society on the whole) suffer significantly more from this than from each supposedly bad individual control.

To come back to your question, of course enjoyment of work is a responsibility for employees, but it can only be fulfilled if the employer does not constantly take responsibility away from the employee and deprive them of the freedom to organise themselves.

You observe that new work has ‘become mainstream’. But, as ever, lots of employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions; flexible work, home office and other such concepts are not offered by many companies at all. What is the biggest problem when implementing new work structures?

My thesis is that new work has become part and parcel of the working world. Much in the same way that pop music is part of the mainstream. Not everyone likes pop music, only a very small section of the population listens to it. Many people even hate it, and despite this - perhaps even because of it - pop music is mainstream, people love it or it grates on them. But no one would really shrug and shake their head to say they had never heard of it.

This is how it is with new work too. The idea has found a place in many people’s minds, people have brought the term into companies. There, this way of thinking about work has been established and proliferated; now no company can escape discussions on subjects like home offices and sabbaticals.

Lars Vollmer “We have reached a point of no return. Now no company can escape discussions on agile management.”

Lars Vollmer

Naturally, home offices and sabbaticals on their own are not ‘new work’, but these opportunities are a clear expression of a working world that has changed - and will continue to change. We have reached a point of no return. There is no going back for certain developments in the working world. Now no company can escape discussions on agile management.

In any case, in today’s working world it is now almost impossible to ignore new work. Of course, a few industries manage it anyway. They close their eyes and hope for the best. But in 30 years these industries will barely exist any more or their shares will fall by the wayside. I would go that far.

They say “culture is not designed” - new working methods therefore cannot be created, but must develop. So what can companies actively do to make positive changes?

This comes down to a misunderstanding: culture is the result of events, not the cause of them. Or to put it somewhat theoretically: culture is the autopoietic communication template of a social system. That means that culture is living, it is constantly changing but cannot be decided. You cannot create a particular culture of your choice from the outside. You can print placards and declare workshops on your desired culture, but you will always find that the culture you observe actually develops in the opposite way. No one has a handle on it. And it is usually not necessary to work on culture at all just because you want it to be different. Because culture is an organisational solution, it has good reasons to be the way it is.

Lars Vollmer “Culture is not the cause of events, it is the result of them. If it doesn’t “look right”, this is an indicator of dysfunctional structures.”

Lars Vollmer

So I suggest the following perspective: if culture doesn’t “look right”, this is an indicator of dysfunctional structures. Something is up. It is not the culture that is broken but the value creation.

Lars Vollmer "‘New work’ describes a development towards an improved work-life balance and more satisfaction in work. Do you believe that there will only be satisfied employees in fifty years?"

Lars Vollmer

An example of this is a ‘silo mentality’ - this isn’t a cultural problem, but a structural one. Silo thinking usually gets very much in the way of value creation. But you can make decisions about this. Team structures, pay systems, incentives, key performance indicators among other things are so-called ‘determinable’ premises and they must be worked on. Developing culture is usually just a desperate alternative strategy to avoid getting on with things.

I’m not a prophet, so I’m dodging this question. I prefer to deal with the present. And the present is fatally pervaded by the thinking patterns of the past. The term ‘work-life balance’ for example, reflects one such thinking pattern. Work and life are not the two sides of a scale, they are essentially integrated. I’m exaggerating. There are likely already lots of people who are dissatisfied simply because they are told time and time again that they need to strive for a work-life balance.

If you could give employers one line to guide them, what would it be?

“Work on the system and stop faffing about with people and treating them like they need fixing.”

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