Rethinking Traditional Employment Models

How to use Frithjof Bergmann’s “New Work” philosophy to create a happier, more effective work environment.

by Jemima Jordan, January 17, 2018

During a time of such economic, political, and societal uncertainty, it is no surprise that people are questioning the capitalist system more than ever before. Even the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is expressing concern: 

“Despite such immense progress, many citizens in advanced economies are facing heightened uncertainty, lamenting a loss of control and losing trust in the system.”

In this turbulent environment, Frithjof_Bergmann’s ‘New Work’ philosophy feels increasingly pertinent. As the technological revolution was fast-approaching in a newly globalized world, Bergmann started to question people’s acceptance of the industrial revolution employment paradigm in which ‘workers helped the capitalists to amass wealth’. He looked at how we could move from a society and economy built on a rigid and compulsory work structure driven by scarcity and fear, to a more humane, intelligent model driven by passion and self-motivation. In very simple terms, Bergmann realized the profound importance of giving people the opportunity to do something they cared about in life, not just for personal benefit, but to benefit society as a whole. 

One can point to the rise of the ‘gig economy’ as an example of how people are looking to move closer to Bergmann’s model within the limits of modern capitalism. More and more, workers are attempting to find freedom and take control of their lives by choosing their own hours, contractors, etcetera. However, the deep irony is that most companies which have used this model, including Uber, Amazon and Deliveroo, appear to have used the desire for freedom to exploit staff more than ever. In 2015, the GMB trade union warned that staff in the UK were developing mental and physical illnesses because of grueling “regimes”. Former Uber CEO, Travis Kalinack, gives a stark show of sheer disinterest in workers rights in this now infamous video, which has, in part, led to his resignation. 

So, as we watch our world try to calibrate its values with its economic structures, there are a several principles we can take from Bergmann’s New Work model to ensure that we acknowledge this shift in the workforce’s mindset, and establish a level of employee satisfaction that is sustainable for the future: 

Help your employees cultivate their passions

When General Motors in Michigan was faced with the prospect of letting go half of their factory workforce in 1984, Bergmann suggested that they instead employ all staff for 6 months, and ‘during the other six months, make it possible for the workers to do something that they passionately wanted to do.’ Not only did everyone retain their jobs, but people discovered their true passions: ‘Some started small businesses, some went back to school, some decided they wanted more time with their children. In one case, a woman came to realize how much she enjoyed working with wood and went on to become a carpenter’.

This example is unusual, but what it signifies is profoundly important—often, staff are using a job as a means to an end. It does not mean they are not dedicated, devoted or conscientious - merely that they are earning their keep while moving along a path to their dream-role. The value in helping them to invest and cultivate their skills and guide them towards that role is invaluable, as it provides unparalleled loyalty and inspiration within the workforce.

To this end, creating a culture of transparency as a line-manager and helping your staff achieve their personal and professional goals within the limits of your company’s power is imperative. 

Another option is to create a mentorship program within the company to take staff development to another level. Although a lot of companies have dismissed mentorship as a sort of fad, there are some astounding case studies that showcase the impact of mentoring for both mentors and mentees within companies. One of the strongest cases I have looked at is Intel, which you can read about here:

Embrace flexible working

Just as employees want to cultivate interests and passions within work, they also want the space to do so outside of work. Therefore, it is no surprise that work/life balance is the most important factor for employees when they look for a new job. A Deloitte survey from last year shows that work/life balance was the first priority for Millennials, beating ‘opportunities to progress’ by 3.4%. Limiting the amount of overtime staff do is one aspect to this, but another is implementing flexible working in your company. Not only will it give employees the freedom they crave, but as a study from The American Sociological Review showed, flexible workers achieve more, are off sick less frequently, work longer hours overall and are happier in their work when compared to 9-5 workers. 

To draw even more inspiration from Bergmann, you may consider implementing job sharing within your company - just like in the General Motors example above. For Bergmann, there was a clear irony that ‘we have something like a third of the population working at an utterly insane pace, and on the other side, close to half of the population is obviously underemployed.’ As opposed to having one person work crazy hours to get a job done, why not split the job between two? According to the Job Share Project, for 87% of employees surveyed, job sharing meant the difference between staying with a company or leaving altogether. 

Purpose is key

One of Bergman’s most profound realizations was people’s desire to do the right thing. His vision was a world where you harness that desire to give it the power to change the world. In his words:

‘The fact that people, when given a choice, want to do work with a purpose represents a source of social energy that is the equivalent of the steam engine. You can rethink the economy and much else about our culture if that turns out to be true.’

Our companies may be limited in what they can achieve in terms of changing the economy; but on a smaller scale, this tendency to work towards what is right can be harnessed to improve company culture, productivity and happiness. One easy way of doing this is via an interactive and inclusive CSR strategy that all employees contribute towards. I have written a previous article all about this here, which gives examples and guidelines as to how you can go about it, to improve work engagement while ensuring your company makes a real social impact.

Create new success measures

One of the elements that links all of the above is the evolution of how success is defined. To go back to Mark Carney’s words in the introduction, people are losing trust in the system. It is not just that the system has shown signs of corruption and weakness in recent years, it is that capitalism as an economic concept is not providing fulfillment for the masses. The Deloitte study of Millennials that I referred to earlier provides these four drivers of what a Millennial looks for in a job:

  • Good work/life balance — 16.8%
  • Opportunities to progress/be leaders — 13.4%
  • Flexibility such as remote working, flexible hours — 11.0%
  • Deriving meaning from work — 9.3%

Companies need to re-evaluate what success means, just as Millennial are. Instead of solely looking at a spreadsheet to see what the company’s earnings are, consider looking at the happiness of your staff or the social impact you are making. One woman who is leading the way in this area is Emma Sexton, owner of 2 successful businesses and presenter of the ‘Badass Woman’s Hour’ podcast. 

"Being measured on hours and how much time you are in an office is not an indication of how productive you are or how effective you are at your job. At MYWW we still don’t have an office after 5 years. Employees are measured on objectives and business impact. They are free to work the hours they choose, where they choose as long as they consider the business impact of their activities. In my experience this has led to happy, healthier, individuals who are more motivated as they now have agency on how they spend their time plus they can measure their impact."


If the political instability of the past 12 months has shown us anything, it is that nothing is set in stone. Although it may feel like a time of instability, the realization that our society might be more malleable than we once thought is something very empowering. By recognizing that most of us are willing to work hard to fulfill a meaningful outcome, Bergmann offers us an insight that could help us to increase employee happiness and fulfillment, while also improving society as a whole. 

About the author


After working for 6 years in charity marketing in London, Jemima Jordan moved to Berlin to try out working agency-side. She has now allotted over 10 years of experience in Marketing, Communications and Digital, and specialises in CSR and youth marketing. She also likes to paint!

Originally published July 12, 2017