New work projects are changes that require management. Like the construction of a new office building or the conversion of individual offices into open-plan offices. Without change management, they harbour social and emotional dynamite. So any management would be well advised to involve employees as early as the planning stage for new working environments. You think that’s common sense? Well, it’s not! As change co-creators and guides, we have experienced that new work projects have to be added to the list of failed changes.
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Among new-work enthusiasts, for example, open, mobile and flexible work structures with often non-fixed workplaces are popular. This preference is certainly shared by many white collar employees. But not all of them do. Employers who nevertheless want to force such a concept on their workforce will lose some of their valuable specialists. Namely, all those who wish to design their workplace individually. And those who want to work in a familiar and quiet environment.
Example of a failed New Work project
In a SME, such a plan got out of control: The CEO wanted a 30-person department to move from individual offices to a “team area” (open-plan office). He was so convinced of the open-plan concept that he persistently brushed aside counter-arguments and did not involve those affected in the change project. The tone of the dispute became increasingly heated. In some cases, it was carried out via a large e-mail distribution list. In the meantime, the CEO was creating facts by pushing ahead with the change over the heads of those involved.
Works council from consultation to co-determination
It took around twelve weeks before the CEO relented due to a works council intervention. In Germany, the works council initially has just the right to information and consultation in New Work projects (according to §90 of the Works Constitution Act, BetrVG). However, in a petition, two-thirds of those affected claimed that the planned new working environment would place a particular burden on them. This was a prerequisite for §91 BetrVG. In such cases, the works council has a clear right of co-determination up to the point of appealing to the conciliation committee.
Trust drain followed by a brain drain
Only in this situation did the management give in. It gave all members of the department the choice of either working in an individual office or in the open-plan area. After twelve weeks of conflict, however, the trust between management and the team had been severely damaged, and in some cases permanently shattered. Several highly qualified specialists left the SME as a result of this failed change.
How to lead New Work projects to success
Our example shows that companies (of all sizes) are well advised to involve their employees already in the design phase of new working environments. Employers must keep in mind that new work concepts are not automatically wanted by all employees at the same time. And that these change initiatives will only be successful when they meet the different needs of all those affected.
After all, they are the ones who are supposed to spend a large part of their working time in the office. And, given the appropriate age structure, they will do so across generations. In other words, the young zoomers should feel at home there, as should the near-retired boomers and the skilled workers of the Generations X and Y that will be following them. Aligning a working environment that only fits the needs of one generation would be very short-sighted.
Workshops and a management framework
But what is the best way to lead a New Work project to success? At viadoo, we recommend the following:
- At the very beginning, organisations should definitely familiarise themselves with the basic psychological factors of change processes. Therefore, they might wan’t to use change models and practice their empathy. What pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and emotions can arise among employees? How do people react to change and how can we deal with it? What is the best possible way to involve them from the outset with their ideas, wishes and fears and encourage them to actively participate in shaping the process?
- Then there could be a series of workshops in key departments with representatives of all generations. In this process, participants collect their requirements for New Work concepts, categorise and prioritise them. This procedure certainly excludes a prior commitment to a specific concept.
- Of course, management must also clearly define and communicate the framework of contributing to the New Work projects. This helps to manage expectations and to reduce the risk of disappointment and resistance or even unwanted fluctuations.
- And finally everyone should be clear from the start that they will have to compromise on their ideal ideas for the New Work projects.
Realising a pilot project first
In addition to classic information and participation management, small change projects can be helpful, similar to digitisation (digital units). In the case of new working environment, they would be New Work pilot projects. For example, meeting corners, meeting points, etc. would be integrated into a corridor and made ready for use. Based on the workshop results. Employees could then test the new environment for a period of time and provide feedback. We also recommend that those who later work in a more open work structure develop rules for mutual consideration.