Changing perspectives

As a futurist with a focus on the development of the working world Franz Kühmayer straddles the interface between trend research and consultancy. In our interview he spoke to us about the current chances and risks he sees for firms.

Anna Moldenhauer: Mr Kühmayer, what instruments are available for looking into the future of work?

Franz Kühmayer: On the one hand, we work with the classic tools of trend research, i.e., prognostic methods that help us identify how attitudes in society are developing in long-term cycles. We try to understand from various perspectives how the world changes over years and decades. That ranges from gender role models or our relationship to the environment through to developments in the working world. Our team is interdisciplinary – for example, one of my colleagues is a nutritionist. In the same way that I study how work is changing she examines the developments as regards our food. Our collaboration might then raise questions say as to whether offices will need a canteen in future, or how working from home influences our eating habits. The institute does research in its own right and is commissioned by firms.

What questions are corporations currently asking as regards changes in the work world?

Franz Kühmayer: For many companies the pandemic has acted like a turbocharger for trying out new work methods. Many corporations that could not previously imagine that their staff members would also work when they were not in the office were proved wrong. In addition, firms have recognized what is needed in the way of technical infrastructure. Doubtless the greatest challenges lie in developing a new corporate culture. How do you manage a team from a distance? How do you use hybrid work forms efficiently? From a long-term perspective the topic of digitization is the one that will have the greatest impact on our work world. By that I not only mean working from any location but also what role humans will play in a world where algorithms and artificial intelligence can and will take over a large part of our work.

Do you believe the digitization boom also represents an opportunity for firms?

Franz Kühmayer: I consider it a chance but also a danger. Naturally, being pushed in at the deep end acted as an accelerator for development. However, some firms are unable to see the bigger picture and see working from home as the pinnacle of digitization. But there is still a lot of scope for further developments, not only as regards how work is organized but also in social issues.

What developments in corporate cultures are you seeing at the moment?

Franz Kühmayer: There are those firms that are still in a state of shock especially if the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on them economically and they have to deal with the challenges of simply surviving. The second group is made up of those that have already rolled out the topic of mobile working pretty much across the board, IT corporations, for example. They are now emerging from this phase stronger than they were before. The third group is in a phase of reflection, have grasped the crisis as an opportunity for learning, and have started development programs. As I see it, they account for the majority. A very small number see the pandemic as a one-off aberration and are trying to restore the previous state of things. Naturally, that won’t work because the COVID19 pandemic has divided our present age into a “before” and an “after” and we would be well advised to use this pause button, to learn from it.

How realistic in your view is a lasting change in thinking?

Franz Kühmayer: That depends a lot on the history of the firm before the pandemic. You can’t remedy an inefficient corporate culture using short-term crisis management. It is a task that requires many years and that is also influenced by the company executives and their attitude towards staff. Some have now recognized that until now they have behaved like prison wardens, who monitor whether all their employees are present. Their suspicion that without such supervision employees would not make any effort was not confirmed during the lockdown. Moreover, even before the pandemic the attitude that employees should simply accept the conditions and situation in their firm was changing. Given the shortage of specialists and the ageing population highly-qualified workers are increasingly able to confidently select an employer. In addition, the pandemic highlighted the shortcomings in those careers that keep society up and running. After all, working from home is a luxury that people working in the healthcare system or in the retail sector cannot afford. I’m a little concerned that given the economic crisis calls to improve the working conditions of this group will be quickly pushed aside. But that would be a grave mistake because we have the chance to make lasting changes now. The long-term success of our society will be much more dependent on whether we have enough nursing staff than overpaid investment bankers. There is a certain lopsidedness to the focus of the discussion at the moment.

Frithjof Bergmann, co-founder of the “New Work” movement said “we should not be serving work, but work should serve us”. Does his idea currently take on a new relevance for you?

Franz Kühmayer: The question is what constitutes good work? And what significance does it have in our lives? One factor is economic, because work secures our income. A second one is personal – does my work make me happy and do I have the feeling that I am spending my time meaningfully? This aspect has gained in importance in recent years. Rather than a larger salary, greater value is placed on further training, the recognition of achievements and free time. The third factor is the value of work for society, which is increasingly receiving greater attention. We are seeing a development in these field that the pandemic has reinforced. Previously, the focus was on catching up economically through promotion and hard work regardless of the conditions. But this is no longer seen as attractive. New approaches are called for.

Let’s take a look at the situation we now have – do you feel open-plan offices have had their day given the move towards hybrid ways of working?

Franz Kühmayer: In the short-term, one question this raises is how we can put the empty office space to good use. In the long-term companies need to consider whether their previous use of space and the offerings connected with it still make sense – and that of course includes their energy supply. When there is less demand for office spaces this will also lead to new architectural approaches. Another intriguing thing is the revaluation of the home office. Issues that were primarily of interest for equipping offices are now also of interest for the home office area, whether it is acoustics, partitioning off space, ergonomic furniture or the attractive design of these products. I very much hope we won’t see a return to the computer desks of the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, conference room technology will also change again in light of the hybrid work situation. Many IT providers have also discovered the topic of new work and are working on new solutions.

In the White Paper “The Economy after Corona” published by Zukunftsinstitut the current scenario for firms is described as a “lazy eight”. What is meant by that?

Franz Kühmayer: The basic concept is that firms are now in the middle of an eight, at a changeover point between the old and new methods. This is the point at which a decision is taken whether the option for innovation is used to develop new products and alter the ingrained behaviors of the old regime. It is also a question of attitude. Am I as an entrepreneur fearful and conservative or daring and with a longing for innovation? We can no longer return to the world before COVID19. It is now about finding a balance regarding the areas for investing resources and budget. Firms should use this bifurcation, this turning point, because times of crisis are ideal times for trying out new things.