“It’s definitely not a case of one or the other”
The sociologist Jutta Allmendinger began studying changes in the world of work before the coronavirus pandemic. The President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center discusses “new ways of working” and “good work”.
Prof Dr Jutta Allmendinger: The multiple award-winning sociologist has been President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and professor of educational sociology and labour market research at Humboldt-Universität since 2007. Before that she was Director of the Institute of Employment Research; she has also worked as a researcher in both Germany and the USA.
Professor Allmendinger, when new forms of work are mentioned many people probably initially only think of working from home. Is this view of new ways of working accurate or is it misleading because it blocks out the industrial work world?
Both. Working from home has experienced an enormous boom during the pandemic. Many people with occupations and duties that can basically be carried out at home have for many months only rarely travelled to their normal workplaces. I experience that very much at first hand: many employees of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center come to the institute to eat together or simply to talk. Many do most of their work at home. That’s new. And accordingly the administrative managing director and I have to manage the centre differently. This requires flexible work organisation, greater resources and a significant increase in communication to maintain the vibe of the institution. But be careful: here we are talking about at most 25% of all employees nationwide that are able to work from home. Everyone else has to be on the spot: in industrial plants, in hospitals and care homes, in supermarkets and department stores, in restaurants and in agriculture. That’s often overlooked.
How do you define “new ways of working”?
For me, new ways of working is an umbrella term for all those developments that leave traditions behind. Working from home is one of them, but so are working with robots providing on-site care, high-tech work processes in industry and work on platforms. New ways of working do not only impact the scope and activities of work alone; they also involve the new organisation of work with more flexible forms of leadership.
At the WZB you focus on the subject of “good work”. When is work good?
There are many definitions of good work. At the WZB we have chosen the index defined by the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) as a basis. Accordingly, good work is shaped, among other things, by adequate resources and development opportunities for employees, a reasonable income, a secure job and codetermination rights.
In any event, gainful employment remains very important for most people, as studies by the WZB have also shown. But under what circumstances do people consider their work meaningful? What roles do money and work-life balance play?
Most people consider a meaningful job in an environment where they are appreciated to be more important than pay. Our legacy study, which the WZB carried out jointly with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and the infas Institute for Applied Social Sciences, shows this very clearly: many people would even go to work if they didn’t need any money. And reconciling work and family life is extremely important – above all, for parents and people who have to care for family members. In the case of many young people too, however, we see that although they consider their careers important, they don’t want to expend all their energies on their jobs, but have time for their private lives.
How do expectations of good work differ around the world?
The differences are significant. In Germany and many other countries the majority of the workforce fortunately works under relatively secure conditions. Of course there is still a great deal to be done and what has been accomplished constantly has to be defended. However, we think far too seldom about the people in Africa or some countries in Latin America. Institutional security is frequently missing there – for example, in the event of illness or other crisis situations. Furthermore, these countries often have many fundamental problems, such as an inadequate food supply or lack of public safety. Where hunger prevails or you worry about your very survival, you don’t think about good work. That only happens once you and your family are reasonably well-fed.
Many people also associate new ways of working with the idea that they can be mobile and work flexibly all over the world. But how many people can actually do that? To that extent, is new work a privilege for a highly educated digital elite?
In the long term, new ways of working will certainly affect more and more people worldwide. But, of course, if we are honest about it, new work is now primarily a trend for an elite, as you put it. That’s also the problem with the ongoing discourse on the subject. It really annoys me that all the talk about new ways of working stops us focusing firmly on “good work”. As a result, all those who are already in difficult situations continue to be left out in the cold.
Further training and lifelong learning are considered fundamental for the world of work. You have described these concepts as “yesterday’s phrases”. Why?
Both concepts prove lacking in the face of the rapid changes of our age. Technological development is progressing at such a dynamic rate, and the demography of an ageing population with skilled labour shortages presents us with fundamentally new challenges. This can no longer be addressed with small further training measures here and “brain jogging” there. Nevertheless, I would not like to be misunderstood: training and lifelong learning are important, but they must finally become part of a larger design for the work of the future.
What will employment biographies look like in future? Will people begin new vocational training programmes at the age of 50?
I hope so! We must soon say goodbye to an educational and vocational training system that makes us believe at the beginning of our lives that we are adequately trained for the rest of our lives. Many jobs will disappear in the wake of digitalisation; many new work activities will emerge, while others will require much greater knowledge and skills than they do today.
How must the education system adjust if the world of work is changing at an ever faster pace?
It has to become much more appealing, more inclusive, than it is today. It has to inform people better, actively reach out to people. And it urgently needs new models of funding. We need many more specialists who can advise employees and inform them of new developments. Prevention is the key word. We should not first wait for someone to become unemployed before we invest in improving their knowledge. We should act proactively and keep at it. That’s already succeeding rather well in some areas of the health sector – think of medical check-ups, for example.
The change in the world of work is inextricably tied up with the coronavirus pandemic. In December 2020, at the end of the first coronavirus year, you wrote in an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “Once the virus is under control again, almost everything will go back to the way it was before.” Do you still see it that way?
I consider digitalisation and overall technological development to be the drivers of new forms of work. The pandemic has only accelerated developments in a country that has problems with social-technological progress. To that extent I hope very much that my forecast comes true: people will join together, talk to one another in person and be curious about one another.
Working from home and online meetings have had an impact on many people during the pandemic. Which of these changes will remain with us? Or is it desirable for people to return to the office?
It’s definitely not a case of one or the other. Times spent at the workplace are essential. Offices and business premises were and are very important meeting places, centres of cooperation. We must protect them for the good of cohesion in our society. Certainly, we’ll do many things more flexibly, more digitally and more locally in the future. Ultimately, however, if we have no physical presence at all at a shared place of work we will endanger the social cement that binds our country together.
The pandemic has influenced working life in very different ways. While some have been able to work at home without a problem, the burden on families, for example, and often especially on mothers has been very profound. What social impacts has the pandemic had on working life?
They’ve been huge; we know that. Dissatisfaction, stress and loneliness have increased. The social differences between people who work at home and those who work in the workplace have increased. In addition to this there are the differing conditions of mobile work itself. Employees who have a quiet, undisturbed and technologically well-equipped workspace can conduct their work and, ultimately, their life in a completely different way from those who have to live in an apartment too small for working from home, to make do with a low income or to look after small children or parents in need of care.
The pandemic has presumably also strengthened the trend for work and private life to blend into one. Is it still important to separate these worlds – or is that an outdated idea? What kind of demarcation can there be at all in a digital world?
Once again: that applies to a minority of employees. Clear rules on when they can be contacted by employers are very important. Everybody needs self-determined periods of rest, otherwise they burn out.