“When we do it, we do it right”

Author: Nils Wischmeyer & Lars-Thorben Niggehoff |
Photo: Lêmrich
Co-working, home office, four-day week: Many companies can’t get enough of “new work” terminology. But does new work really bring about a change in work culture? Is our understanding of work changing fundamentally? Markus Väth, initiator of the New Work Charta, and Peter Sticksel, head of HR at Haniel, do a reality check

Mr Sticksel, when we talk about new work today, many people think of part-time work and colourful upholstered furniture. How much upholstered furniture have you bought for Haniel recently?

[STICKSEL]: In recent years, we have actually furnished some rooms with comfortable coloured armchairs and couches. We didn’t have all that before – it was exemplary black and brown, and the chairs were standardised. We’ve already changed that in recent years, as a first test run, so to speak. However, we are aware that this is by no means the end of the new work topic.

[VÄTH]: In fact, first of all, that’s not new work. Unfortunately, this is just the sort of thing that I see in too many companies. Today, new work often is thought to consist of great new upholstered furniture and a home office. I always try to counter that with something and explain that there has to be a lot more behind it.

What do you mean?

[VÄTH]: I see two generations of new workers. Today’s generation comprises companies that develop great organisational structures. But that’s just a fragment. The old generation has been following the social-utopia model that the founder of the idea, Frithjof Bergmann, had in mind. The question of new work was not about companies at all, but about human freedom. People should be able to work more independently and participate more in society. New work, therefore, also means creating a different kind of awareness in society of what work is – and how it balances with the life around it.

Sounds like a pretty big job for a company.

[VÄTH]: That’s not just the job of the companies. It’s also a step that has to take place in society and that then has an effect on working life.

[STICKSEL]: Whereby the boundary between company and society becomes blurred. At Haniel, over 170 years ago, we built houses for working families. A hospital and schools were also donated. This has worked to the benefit not only of society, but also of the company. Was that already new work, way back then? Perhaps. Our understanding is that an organisation like ours is part of society.

If you’ve been doing this for so long, isn’t the “new work” everyone’s always talking about – part-time, agility, flexibility – just the latest buzzword?

[VÄTH]: That’s what it’s become, yes. Since I wrote my book in 2016, I’ve received letters from people saying, “I’ve only known it as a buzzword; I didn’t know what it was about.” It’s like “burnout”. It’s pop. Everyone has an opinion about it, but nobody knows exactly what it is. So it becomes just the newest bandwagon being driven through the village. And new work doesn’t deserve to be relegated to that – because it’s much more than that.

[STICKSEL]: It’s about human self-determination – and that’s not just a trend. That’s why we at Haniel also follow it. If, as here, a development establishes itself sustainably, we have to react. We may not be the first, but I don’t think we have to be a pioneer, as a family-owned company. But when we do it, we do it right.

That’s what you say from above, from the top of the hierarchy. What if your employees are not interested in the new developments at all?

[STICKSEL]: It’s a long process for us. When you ask people in production today what new work is, nobody knows. Many employees have spent the last 30 years arriving at eight o’clock and leaving at four o’clock. Explain new work to them – it’s very difficult.

Well, what should be done, then?

[STICKSEL]: We want to create freedom. Today you can already work from home, or there is the possibility to collaborate with other colleagues in creative or co-working rooms. We clearly see that people also use this freedom when we offer it to them. The same applies to part-time or other models. In the coming years, demographics alone will cause us to lose around 20 to 50 per cent of the employees who are working in our group of companies today. We will then have fewer employees – but those who are there will perhaps do something completely different.

[VÄTH]: But of course there will be companies that don’t choose new work – and nobody has to. If people in a company prefer hierarchies, then the company can just keep these hierarchies in place. But I believe that such companies will have problems finding capable employees in the future.

[STICKSEL]: It doesn’t have to be a gigantic revolution. We will think carefully about what suits us – and what doesn’t. A recycling company like ELG and a wholesaler like TAKKT are fundamentally different. Of course, one of these companies changes faster than the other. A wholesaler can perhaps do more with part-time work than a shift worker at a scrapyard can. And that’s absolutely okay.


The term “new work” is attributed to the social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann. He defined it as, among other things, a response to the shift from an industrial to a knowledge society. The old concepts of fixed structures, concrete working hours, and the strict division between personal life and work life no longer apply. Something new was needed: more independence, personal responsibility and flexibility for those working in companies. The new work movement also advocates greater social participation on the part of corporations.

How much new work is already happening at Haniel today?

[STICKSEL]: You have to separate what we do as an investment company from what the operating divisions do. When I look at it, I would say this: In the Duisburg holding company, we are at 20 to 25 per cent; in the individual companies, there is everything – from 50 per cent to sometimes only 10 or 20 per cent.

[VÄTH]: I think you can’t measure new work quantitatively. Just as you, a person, can’t say that you are 60 or 80 per cent grown up – that is difficult. Every company has to see which principles of the new work idea are interesting and how the company can teach these principles. There is no blueprint that you can work through step by step.

[STICKSEL]: With my percentage figures, I wanted to clarify where we tend to be along our path. New work is a process – one could even call it a cultural change – that we take on together with the people in the company. And you’re absolutely right: everyone is different. Not only the companies, but also the employees have very individual needs, which we have to take into account in this cultural change.

[VÄTH]: How exactly do you describe this to your employees? For example, I once spoke to a bank board member who described to me the bank’s approach. Five values were defined, and they were to be broken down to the employees in two weeks. Unfortunately, this is a lot of nonsense and also a very common approach.

[STICKSEL]: We don’t do it that way. I also believe that a pure top-down or bottom-up approach is too one-dimensional. We as a company present our ideas for new work in test rooms. We then invite employees to work there. But we don’t force anyone to do anything. This also applies to the values you just mentioned.


Peter Sticksel (left), 54, has been with Haniel for twelve years and has been head of HR since 2012. Markus Väth, 44, is a coach in the field of new work and has written several nonfiction books on psychology and management.


So, what are Haniel’s values?

[STICKSEL]: The name “enkelfähig” already sums it up very well. It’s about doing business in a way that will benefit future generations. We are currently considering how exactly we can achieve this goal in the future. This is a major project, involving employees at all levels. In principle, we want to clarify why we exist, and why we should continue to exist in the future.

Haniel is a company with a long tradition. Is this an advantage or a disadvantage in such a search for meaning?

[STICKSEL]: What I can say is that we keep looking at this tradition. Our working framework – the old building, the museum – reminds us of it again and again. It gives us the feeling of being different from other companies. Of course, we have to be careful not to be hindered by tradition. But the inspiration that is there for the taking – that is what we take with us.

[VÄTH]: I believe that new work is extremely difficult to implement, especially in corporations, because there is a great distance between the people who have the money and those who have the responsibility. This is more difficult for listed companies, partly because of stock corporation regulations. I simply have to do certain things that are not new work – for example, a CEO making shareholder value the measure of all things. If I, as CEO, don’t do that, I’ll risk being sent to prison. A family business has more opportunities to take risks.

[STICKSEL]: New work is strongly triggered by pressure, by technological changes and changing values in society. At the same time, new competitors such as start-ups are intensifying the competition for skilled workers. They advertise aggressively, attracting employees with a different way of working. And stock companies are now feeling this pressure, perhaps even more so than family businesses, which endeavour to be part of society anyway.

Is it good, though, if a company only changes because the pressure becomes too intense?

[VÄTH]: Pain is a great motivation. I don’t go to the doctor for fun – I go because I have to. But you can see that the successful companies move before the pain becomes too great. Apple, for example: They’re transforming from a hardware company to a services company. Maybe one day car manufacturers will be this smart and say, “We are no longer car manufacturers – we are mobility producers.” It went terribly wrong with Nokia back in the day. In 2011, Stephen Elop said that the iPhone is nonsense. Intelligent companies are developing a sensor to anticipate the pain before it becomes acute.

[STICKSEL]: Detecting the pressure at an early stage is an art. But this pressure is necessary to push people into change. Companies are driven by people. What is critically important is how the decisive minds react. It is therefore important to align their sensors with their employees in order to recognise societal trends.

What will Haniel look like when the new work changes are complete?

[STICKSEL]: At the moment, there are still many pieces of the puzzle in motion. The hope is that they will result in a picture in the end. But we don’t know yet what the picture is. We have a certain idea, but we’re not committed to it. Our employees have already noticed that there are new things on the way. Together we create a lot of new things, and that’s crucial.

[VÄTH]: That’s the right approach. New work is a concept of personal involvement. It goes against the conventional wisdom of decide fast and act fast. Instead, you have to take a step back, consider things and then act thoughtfully. You have to invest time.

More Leeway: Co-Working at Haniel

Home office, flexible working hours, and agile collaboration in creative spaces or virtual teams: There are numerous approaches within the Haniel Group to create new options for employees. This also includes a project in the Haniel Holding: Employees work temporarily in a co-working space.