In the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated contact bans and curfews forced many workers practically overnight into the home-working environment. Hardware was hastily transported, WiFi connections were set up and efforts were made to create the technical conditions for location and time-independent working. “Finally,” thought many a colleague. Life as we knew it had suddenly changed.
How digitalization is changing the world of work
The number of video conferences has increased by leaps and bounds: those who can, do work from their desks at home, and instead of having lunch together in the canteen, teams can even meet up for virtual dining. In the IT and Internet world, taking the leap into digital work has been as successful as expected. Much to the delight of the teachers of agile management methods, the prompt adaptation of the organization to completely new framework conditions has occurred more or less smoothly and, despite all the horror, Covid-19 has effortlessly ensured that large parts of the working world in many countries around the planet have been digitalized. This is about more than the digital version of workflows, higher efficiency, and lower costs. In many places, the cultural changes that accompany the transformation process are greater than the technical challenges. The brave new world of digital work brings with it the relinquishing of hierarchical structures, departmental silos, and the retention of knowledge by management to retain a position of power, in favor of transparency and cooperation. It is less about new technologies than about the question of how work can be re-thought and distributed with the aid of technology.
The role of management in crisis situations
Compared with other sectors, such as the restaurant industry – whose employees have either had to go on reduced hours or lose their jobs – the difficulties facing those who can work from home seem solvable. It’s important to structure the working day in a disciplined way, even within your own four walls, to create space for breaks and exercise, and to motivate yourself again and again, even when the household and children provide distractions. Young families in particular face unprecedented challenges when both parents have to share a desk for eight hours a day, keep their children busy at the same time, and replace the teacher for the older children. Even though some employees miss having direct contact with their colleagues and after a few weeks there are reports of incidences of “cabin fever”, the vast majority are satisfied to be able to work flexibly and reward the new freedom with above-average commitment and dedication.
Reliable and clear communication on the part of the management is essential, especially in this uncertain situation, and the interaction with the team in the virtual space is more important than ever. Many employers are taking their duty of care very seriously at the moment and offer their employees orientation, a virtual sports program, or resilience courses for better stress management. But it is even more important to maintain contact with colleagues, to listen, and to strengthen the sense of connection against the backdrop of social isolation. Responsible managers now counter the fear of illness and job loss and the exceptional psychological burden with appreciative feedback and a continuous flow of information – even when the situation is uncertain and they themselves are somewhat at a loss.
The turning point for the world of work
More than ever, clearly formulated tasks that allow for fast and tangible progress, as well as regular meetings that also leave room for private articulations and the question of how each person feels, are proving their worth. The multitude of video conferences and virtual meetings may be tiring, but it is precisely through this bridge to colleagues and customers – without which the psychological and economic damage would have been immense – that digitalization ensures in many places that the crisis does not turn into a catastrophe. From its original wording, crisis stands for “turning point”, and it remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 crisis has helped the digital world of work to take off in the medium term. After all, it has been proven in many places that digital collaboration can work, and that self-determined working – rather than control and compulsory attendance – increases motivation in many cases.
It is to be hoped that the New Work approach, the origins of which can be traced back to the great crisis in the American automotive industry, will no longer be equated with fruit baskets and playgrounds for IT-affine techies, but will be understood in its essence: New Work, according to Frithjof Bergmann, stands for a digital, decentralized, and democratic world of work, for results-oriented and self-determined work which takes place on an equal footing. So this turning point is having a more fundamental impact on the world of work – it is opening pathways to greater diversity in the workforce and greater access to work for many who were previously shut out of participating in economic value creation.
During the Covid-19 crisis, millions of people have discovered this digital world of work, with both its freedoms and its downsides, such as isolation and high work density. Some who would have liked to work from home before this but were unable to due to the resistance of their supervisors will gladly return to the familiar atmosphere of the office after Covid-19. For some, like Alexandra and Laura (below), the digital world of work is simply an extension of how they have always worked. In many companies, however, the ways of working together will have to be discussed anew.
Life as We Know It - Alexandra & Laura
Alexandra turns on the desk lamp in her tiny office – so late again? As she got started in writing the text for the next column, she promptly forgot the time – even though she had promised the twins that she would at least have dinner with the whole family. When the kids are in bed (hopefully around eight), she will come back to the text again – but for now it’s family time. It’s hard for pre-schoolers to understand that even though mom is home all day, she still can’t play with them. Instead, she sits in front of the damn computer for hours, and they aren’t even allowed to go to the playground. The curfews due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic have not only temporarily paralyzed public life, but also pose special challenges for young families. It seems almost like a stroke of luck to her that the “digital school” project discussed a few weeks ago at the last parents’ evening is still far from being ready. Her older daughter – Mia – won’t be able to catch up on the material of the last few weeks with the few homework assignments that some particularly progressive teachers have now sent by email, but at least that means that she has enough time in the afternoon to take care of her younger siblings – so that Alexandra can work as usual, meet her deadlines, and still concentrate during the umpteenth online conference. Still, at least she can work and doesn’t have to switch to reduced hours, or put together a makeshift workplace at the kitchen table, like so many others.
Long before Covid-19, Alexandra had begun to shift the focus of her work to her home work-space, and to organize her working hours independently. Fortunately, it is not a problem for her to balance her work rhythm with the needs of her family, as long as she delivers the agreed results discussed with her team head at the beginning of the week. Sometimes she is amazed that everyone talks about digitalization, but that coordination within the team and interaction with others are becoming more and more important at the same time. Even before the contact bans, she was actually in the office at most twice a week, mainly for the weekly team breakfast with her colleagues, whom she now misses. The rest of the time she can work just as well as a writer in her own four walls, and communicate with her colleagues online. There is already talk in the media that this strange virus will accelerate digitalization immensely, and even a few days after the curfews began, it was already clear that successful work is not bound to certain places or time slots. Digital technology serves as a bridge, connecting people where physical coexistence is currently not possible. In the meantime, she has managed quite well to keep reasonably regular working hours at home, to take regular breaks, and only as an exception to hold telephone conferences in the kids’ room.
As convenient as it is to be able to combine work and private life, there must always be phases when the smartphone finally goes quiet and she is there for her children. Life as a working mother can be quite exhausting, but the satisfaction she feels when a text she has been working on for so long is finally perfect is something she wouldn’t want to miss at any price. Of course, she could also make use of the childcare services offered by the publishing house – her employer takes family friendliness seriously, generously offers various part-time options, and is also aware of its social responsibility towards its employees.
Her neighbor Laura is not doing quite so well: As a freelance graphic designer, she shimmies from job to job and feels the pressure of competition from international colleagues who do their job many thousands of kilometers away at much lower fees. And Laura hasn’t done nearly enough for retirement savings yet – it simply hasn’t been possible. She could pull up stakes tomorrow and move to her boyfriend in Spain, and she could do her job just as well from there via the Internet. These freelancers are called “digital nomads”, and if the statistics are to be believed, there are more and more of them every year. It’s tempting to follow the sun and do your job at the beach café, but what will that freedom feel like when you retire? Alexandra has rarely been so happy as during this crisis to be employed by an employer who has not only created the technical conditions for mobile working, but has also established a culture in which the boss no longer distinguishes themselves by being the last one there to turn off the lights. Will it be possible to turn this crisis into a turning point for our way of working, and to continue to make digital technology central to work, even after Covid-19?
However, despite digital working being a saving grace in a situation like the current crisis, digitalization remains a bone of contention for many workers. Will my workplace be taken over by a machine in the future? Will decisions that are essential for me, such as those about the allocation of work, soon be made by algorithms? And is human labor becoming increasingly worthless? As justified as these concerns are, fear and ignorance are the worst possible advisors at a time when the will to shape and strive for the continuous further development of your own abilities is more important than anything else. It can be assumed that almost every job will be affected by digitalization, and speculation varies as to how many and which jobs will be lost in the future.
Life as We Know It - Elke
Elke looks at her wristwatch and is relieved to see that this workday at the supermarket checkout will soon come to an end. Is it really because of the fear of Covid-19 that the customers were particularly gruff again today? Queues many meters long in front of the supermarket, the daily competition for the meager toilet paper stocks, and endless discussions with impatient customers. The store manager is already constantly pushing for more efficiency, and more and more customers are using the new digital checkouts – that is, those who are not already doing their shopping online anyway. Will the traditional sales assistant still be needed at all in a few years or will everything be digital by then? Her son told her last weekend that in the future almost every job will be adapted to the computer, and that many work processes will soon look completely different or even be replaced directly by a machine. That it is already foreseeable that the time will come when she will no longer be needed.
Actually, she had wanted to look around for a long time to see if further education was an option for her. After all, she’s good at sales, and when the children are a bit bigger, she would also like to learn something new. Something where she could work closely with people and be less suffocated by routine. After all, people have been saying for years that the service sector will continue to grow and that consultancy work will be in demand for quite some time to come. Sure, her computer skills leave a lot to be desired. She just didn’t grow up with a smartphone in her hand like the kids these days. The store manager praises her regularly for having such a good rapport with the trainees, and it is easy for her to convey to these young people that the customer is still king, even just shy of closing time. As a mother of three children, she understands young people and is happy when, after three years, her trainees stand proudly in front of her with their vocational qualification. Maybe working with young people would be an alternative for her?
A few weeks ago, her daughter brought home a brochure from the employment agency. Elke will take a closer look later at the chapter on “Further Education”. The guidance counsellor had told her eldest that there is now a fairly diverse range of state-subsidized qualification measures, because even the politicians in the distant capital have understood that more and more companies are needing to switch to computers and rethink their employment strategy. Let’s wait and see where the journey might go for Elke.
The common good – working to live and living to work
In fact, the world of work has not only been in flux since the industrial revolution; it has always been characterized by progress and constant change. However, never before has the potential for shaping the world of work been as great as in the digital world, and rarely before has it been possible – at least in the industrialized nations – to discuss the value of work from an ethical point of view and against the background of economic prosperity. For example, a basic income is currently being considered in Germany as a starting point for social participation, the courage to implement innovative entrepreneurial ideas, and a self-determined life. The economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis and the threat of recession fueled this discussion in the spring of 2020, because many self-employed workers and freelancers – but also employees – lost their livelihoods from one day to the next, and could no longer meet their day-to-day costs.
At the same time, employees in what are termed 'systemically relevant' professions, such as those in care environments, medical institutions, or even in the food industry, find themselves under enormous pressure, and work to the brink of exhaustion, as Tim (below) exemplifies.
Life as We Know It - Tim
Tim tries to remember how to do that particular exercise that always did his back so much good during the physiotherapy sessions – a day of physical work, moving bedridden patients, and the constant strain on his spine takes its toll, even though he had once chosen to go into nursing because he wanted to take care of the weak and the elderly and be there for those who need his help. A meaningful job – that was what tipped the scales in favor of this career path, despite the lousy pay. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time left in the day for all of that, as a carer responsible for 17 patients. The other day, he read that robots were being used in care in Japan. A strange thought at first, but if such a machine could take over some of the strenuous activities – or take care of the tedious documentation – then he would have more time to read a story to his patients, and maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
Will his profession receive more recognition as the world of work changes and, at the same time, as more and more aging people become dependent on care? When work can increasingly be taken over by machines, will it then be worth less because it costs less? And will tasks that are reserved for humans then be more highly valued? Tim has seen again and again that new acquaintances define themselves according to their job – and the more impressive the salary, the more important the person feels. But is a person really only as valuable as their work? And what exactly makes work valuable and for whom?
In Spring 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic stopped the world around him. People were forced to stay indoors because of the contact bans, and they applauded his colleagues in the hospitals and nursing homes every evening on their balconies. Tim is always happy about the fact that his profession is now considered 'systemically relevant' and that now, when many people have hardly any work, those whose work makes a valuable contribution to the common good are held in esteem. However, he would prefer it even more if the new reputation as an “important service provider in society” were to be sustained beyond the time of crisis, and if doing good work would finally also make a good life affordable.
Inevitably, the risk of falling ill is higher, and nurses or supermarket cashiers are exposed to a much higher risk of infection than, say, software developers in an isolated home-working environment. The chronic staff shortage in the health sector and profit-oriented medical sectors threaten to take their toll in the Covid-19 crisis. Concerns and realities around the world of a high number of infected people facing insufficient capacity in hospitals and nursing stations is forcing countries into an economic standstill. This commitment of workers in systemically relevant professions to work to the limits of the resilience is rewarded in some places by tax-free bonuses and a wave of appreciation among the population – welcome measures that should not obscure the fact that the majority of these workers experience poor working conditions and are often poorly paid. Last but not least, Covid-19 raises the legitimate question of how doing good work for the common good can also result in doing good work in the economic sense.
Even pessimistic forecasts assume that a large number of new jobs will be created in the course of digitalization, that completely new job profiles will develop, and that digitalization will continue to be the most important job engine in many economies. At the same time, a shift away from the traditional employment relationship can be observed, the number of freelancers and self-employed is growing, and international competition for work orders is increasing. In the future, work will occur in more variations. The standard employment relationship will find its justification, as will atypical employment relationships, for example in the form of free project work or globally active digital nomadism. This, in turn, will pose new challenges for existing social security systems and will require innovative solutions and new solidarity within communities, so that future generations can be protected in old age, illness and unemployment.
It is now important to create the framework conditions so that as many companies and their employees as possible benefit from the economic potential of the digital world of work and that the existing scope for action is used.
Leadership in the VUCA world
So how do we set about tackling the various challenges outlined in our stories of Alexandra, Laura, Elke and Tim? Dealing with the VUCA world (with VUCA standing for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) requires a new approach to leadership, one which will support employees to navigate the uncertainties and cope with transformation.
Values such as transparency, openness, and cooperation characterize teamwork in successful digital companies. This is accompanied by a new understanding of leadership, which is determined by clear and appreciative communication and the ability to provide orientation and create the framework for the best possible performance. This approachable form of leadership is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and the moderation of different but equal interests is a task involving a high level of responsibility. Leadership in an agile environment is determined by a pronounced feedback culture, which is less about backward-looking assessment in the annual review than about the realization of common goals in the future.
The continuous validation of this objective is part of the so-called VUCA world, in which planning certainty and predictability of results are displaced by dynamically changing conditions and uncertainty. The crisis around Covid-19 has shown in many sectors of the economy that unforeseen circumstances suddenly require a high degree of flexibility and that the greatest potential lies in adapting quickly to new requirements, also in the world of work. The complexity of such challenges cannot be mastered by one person alone, but requires wide-ranging knowledge, different experiences, and versatile perspectives. Therefore, in the digital world of work, the leader is no longer necessarily the one with the greatest level of specialist expertise, but is one with the talent to use different competences for the best result. The continuous development of these competences within a team is just as much a part of the requirements for modern leadership behavior as the ability to critically question one’s own leadership style again and again.
Lifelong learning – keeping up with a changing world
It is important for all of us to change and develop with the times – like Elke, to consider where the future is taking us, and what we need to get there. In the new world of work, individual endeavors for continuous further training and lifelong further development of one’s own skills are of immense importance. Not only companies, but also politics and society are facing major challenges here. Everywhere, there is a need to adapt out-dated legal provisions to the realities of the digital world of work, to facilitate the influx of urgently needed skilled workers, and to establish national further education strategies. In particular, the development of digital skills at all levels of the education system is crucial for individual professional success and often also for social participation. Against the background of a rapidly changing world of work and diverse employment biographies, training alone is no longer sufficient. Our educational landscape must become more diverse and transparent and find a connection to the digital reality.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the view of the advantages of digital education has changed, because teaching suddenly went online and millions of working people are taking the opportunity to expand their existing knowledge via digital channels and to further their education in webinars, video tutorials, and online training courses. Learning has long been possible independent of time and place, and can thus adapt much better to the individual needs of the learners. It is to be hoped that the offer of digital education opportunities will also be used more intensively in the long term and that these individual learning formats will contribute to the continuous expansion and updating of existing knowledge throughout an entire professional life, in order to keep pace with the development of digital technology.
The broad qualification of employees for the digital world of work is an absolute prerequisite for their participation in economic growth and progress. Opportunities for innovation must be implemented sensibly and the digitalization of the world of work must be shaped for the benefit of all those involved.
Lucia Falkenberg is Chief People Officer with eco – Association of the Internet Industry and DE-CIX Management GmbH. Having joined eco in 2012, Lucia became Head of the eco Competence Group New Work in 2014. Prior to her role at eco, the Business Studies graduate managed her own human resources firm, where she successfully supported numerous clients in finding and retaining talented personnel. Lucia also previously worked as an international HR representative for an American IT company. Her extensive experience and know-how across the entire human resources spectrum is of particular benefit when it comes to advising executives and developing and implementing targeted personnel marketing and recruitment strategies. As a professional mother and woman working in the digital sector, Lucia benefits directly from the opportunities offered by the digital world of work.
Further information on the topic of diversity can be found on dotmagazine's Diversity focus page and in the eco Association 2020 study on Women in Tech Across the Globe: A Good Practice Guide for Companies.