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How will we work in future?

Prof Bullinger on the future of work – and the work of the future

Professor Hans-Jörg Bullinger is an expert on the future of work – and the work of the future. The President of the Fraunhofer Society knows what it will take to attract motivated employees to productive jobs in the years to come

Why do we need to change our image of work in the first place?
Because we have to take into account trends in society regarding prosperity, working time and the relationship between work and leisure. Moreover, technology gives us an entirely different set of possibilities. With today’s information and communication technologies, the need to keep employees confined in one building to ensure communication and the flow of information no longer exists.

However, the confined space is also being broken up in another, more metaphorical sense: will anyone work at the same company from apprenticeship to retirement in future?
Surely not in the way it was in the past. Things may be a bit more conservative in certain regions, as they are at ebm-papst, for example. There, models of career paths that start and end at the same company will continue to exist for some time. In that case, though, the change takes place within the company: employees switch between departments or locations.

What, then, is the face of the work of the future?
Tomorrow’s work will be less constrained by time and space. To put it most clearly, in the past, the idea was to work in a defined place at a defined time. For those who work in what are still called office jobs, the idea in future will be: “Work where and when you want!”

Is the service-oriented society the ideal means to this end?
Purely in terms of numbers, two-thirds of all employees in Germany already work in the service industry. However, we delude ourselves if we think that we can just cut each other’s hair and deliver pizzas to each other and live happily ever after. We absolutely need value creation from production. In my view, to give that up would be the biggest mistake we could make.

Can these two aspects be reconciled?
Yes, in what are known as “hybrid” products that combine a physical product with a service. The result is that the customer obtains more overall benefit: not just a material product, but consulting, planning and service from a single source. Therefore, I am convinced that in future, production-based companies will behave more like service providers.

By outsourcing production to low-wage countries, do we lose innovative strength?
That is a danger. I think it’s a fairy tale to believe that we can develop in Germany and produce cheaply abroad. Surely, in some cases offshoring is necessary from a production cost standpoint. However, the majority of positive offshore moves are made out of companies’ desire to get closer to their markets. There, the companies adapt their products to the respective market. As a result, a portion of the product-related development will surely also relocate to these countries. On the other hand, companies are also moving to Germany and developing here.

How can the faster pace of society and increased health consciousness at the workplace be reconciled?
The faster pace is very much related to the fact that the world has been made small by communications technologies. Development times are becoming ever shorter and companies still depend on innovations to succeed in business. To stay competitive, they have to present an increasing number of new products and services in an ever shorter time. This does not automatically result in more health problems, but in problems of a different nature. Information gathered by the German Statutory Accident Insurance institutions show that illnesses such as spinal column injuries arising from heavy physical labour are no longer as common as they once were. Today, psychological and psychosomatic illnesses caused by increased time pressure are more prevalent. In this regard, companies will provide balance, and will have to consider issues such as how they can provide their employees with relief phases in jobs with little time pressure.

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