There is currently a great deal of speculation about the future of work. The prophecies range from horror scenarios of mass unemployment to fantasies of a land of plenty in which machines do all the work and people live in a kind of amusement park. Both extremes seem unlikely.
I believe that the most important thing is that we develop a vision of how we want to work in the future.
What is certain is that in the coming years, digitalization and Industry 4.0 will change the world of work more profoundly than we are currently able to imagine. That is why it is crucial to find a response to these challenges that benefits companies, employees and society as a whole. I am firmly convinced that the future world of work is not a fateful development that is happening to us, but rather that we can and must influence and shape the new world of work in line with our expectations.
A few days ago, I spoke with Ralf Sikorski, member of the Managing Board of the German Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union (IG BCE) about the changes in the new world of work. We were both attending the kick-off meeting of the steering committee overseeing the dialogue process WORK@industry4.0, which is being jointly run by the social partners IG BCE and the German Employers’ Federation of the Chemical Industry (BAVC). The aim of the dialogue is to develop a common understanding of the digital transformation. I am looking forward to a real exchange at eye level that bears fruit – in terms of politics, wage policies and also hopefully beyond this.
Within the joint dialogue WORK@industry4.0, we have defined four key topics:
- Flexible and remote working
- Vocational and advanced training
- Good and healthy working
- Leadership and organization
My theses on the respective topics are:
Flexible working must give employees greater freedom than the burden it imposes
Work schedule and location are (continually) losing importance. What we do need, however, is to focus more on work results. Where and in which time frame they are achieved are not decisive. Of course, we must make a distinction between employee groups: Factory work can’t be made flexible to the same extent as office work, especially when it comes to being present on site. However, the important thing is that we seize the ever more diverse opportunities as new-found freedom, rather than as a burden.
“Of course, everyone has the right to be unavailable, as some even demand. But it doesn’t have to regulated by law. What’s crucial is that employers and employees agree to the limits of availability on a case-by-case basis.”
Lifelong learning is a must for all employees
Within our science and technology sector, education is becoming more important than ever. In the future, I expect lifelong learning to be taken seriously not only by those employee groups that already happily participate in advanced training. We must all be prepared to develop ourselves further. This includes older employees, and particularly the less qualified.
Self-responsibility and a fair balance of interests protect employees’ health
When work schedule and location become less important, individual employees bear more responsibility for their own health. Ultimately, greater freedom always means more self-responsibility. Of course, everyone has the right to be unavailable, as some even demand. But it doesn’t have to regulated by law. What’s crucial is that employers and employees agree to the limits of availability on a case-by-case basis. To do this, they must talk to one another and find a fair balance of interests – as has been achieved in other areas over decades of successful management-labor relations.
The new world of work can’t function without good leadership
Leadership is the cross-cutting issue that spreads itself out over all questions regarding the future world of work. Employers must take the topic of good leadership a lot more seriously than before.
For me, this involves at least five elements:
- A controlled loss of control: The willingness of supervisors to relinquish control regarding work schedule and location. Results are what counts.
- Serving as a role model: Supervisors who don’t burn the candle at both ends and are mindful of their health encourage their employees to treat themselves in the same sustainable and responsible way.
- A culture of inclusion: Those who are shown respect are more motivated, more productive and more open to change. In my experience, this applies to everyone.
- Network structures instead of classical hierarchies: Young employees in particular want to work in a project-based company culture characterized by flat hierarchies and team spirit. We are therefore facilitating new forms of leadership where possible and where it makes sense to do so.
- Leading and challenging: The growing freedom that will be offered to employees in the future also requires that they demonstrate greater self-responsibility. Not everyone finds this an easy situation to deal with. This means supervisors must develop a sense of how to meet the individual needs of their employees and support independent work to the right extent.
Digitalization is making so many changes possible that to develop an understanding of the future, we first need to keep in mind an overview of current developments. Not forgetting the openness to constantly review and adapt the way we see the future, since we don’t know if the developments will actually progress as we imagine them today or if it will all turn out differently. It must be possible to fail successfully.
Here’s an example: Today we are fairly certain that in the future we will drive electric cars. But what we don’t know is when electric cars will have firmly established themselves. At present, there are a multitude of different plans. But no one can say with any authority how many electric cars will be on the road in Germany or around the world in 2027. I can still remember early electric models from the 1990s. At the time, the future was theirs. So they said. In practice, however, the majority didn’t even reach series production – and if they did, they were only manufactured in small quantities. Today, electric cars are pretty good. We are already using them at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in some areas. But achieving the major breakthrough in practice requires numerous factors that nobody can foresee or even control.
It becomes even more complicated when we talk about the future of an entire industry. This makes it all the more important to develop a common vision of a desirable world of work – and also work together to make it a reality.
I’m curious to hear your ideas of what the future world of work could look like.