“Feelings need more space in the work context” – a podcast episode about New Work

What if we could let out anger in a meeting and our need for calm was taken seriously in the company? Feelings at work are important for our mental health, but often unwanted. This has to change, says Sabrina Schell, professor at the New Work Institute at BFH Wirtschaft for new forms of work and organisation.

The topic of New Work also brings up terms like “dissolution of boundaries” and “self-exploitation”. In offices with table football and sofas, employees voluntarily work overtime. How do the dissolution of boundaries and the above-average use of technology affect people?

Sabrina Schell: New Work is when work gives us more than it takes away. What does that mean? We all know workdays where we have worked four or five hours, run from meeting to meeting, are exhausted and just want to go to the couch. But there are also days when we’ve been in the office for nine hours, flowing in between, and come home in the evening and say “Yes, I’m fit, I feel like seeing my family, seeing my friends. I’m fine.” I’m not saying we should work such long hours, but that we find work where we feel the same way more often. In a capitalist world, you can say; “It’s great – people are now available 24/7, can always work from anywhere. That’s why we can still have a meeting at 6 in the morning and 10 at night.” But that’s nonsense, of course, because it ignores the holistic nature of the human being, which is what it’s all about. We know from neuropsychology, for example, that we can only concentrate properly for about three hours a day.

That is not very much.

Prof. Dr. Sabrina Schell teaches and researches new forms of organisation and work.

No, and you can think about how much sense it makes to add ten hours. And the question is also, if we are tired and have no sleep, whether three hours of concentrated work is possible at all then. If I exploit the whole thing capitalistically to such an extent, it has little to do with New Work. As a human being I need rest periods, as a human being I need to be able to recharge my batteries, as a human being I need to be seen holistically. I took a look at the current figures. In Switzerland, we see rising rates of depression, rising burnout rates, rising sick days, probably also because of Corona and Co. but also because of the “dissolution of boundaries” and massive techno-stress. Everywhere “Bing, Bing, Bing”, everywhere we are reachable and are supposed to always be online. People can’t stand that at all. Studies clearly show that the single office, or at most the two-person office, is winning out over the open-plan office. But what do many companies do? Hip open-plan offices! There, the New Work movement is used to push the system further. It has nothing to do with the original idea of empowering people.

What would have to happen instead?

For New Work we need new leadership and people who understand the idea and have an attitude. What I highly recommend is the research of Reneé Brown. This is an American sociologist, scientist, and she says: “Courageous leaders make sure that people can be themselves and feel a sense of belonging.” So a sense of belonging. But if I am to be myself, then I have to be allowed to say at work that I am having a bad day today. Or that I need a break. And that’s what it’s all about. We also have to enable people to protect themselves or even protect them from themselves sometimes.

How can companies encourage people or their feelings to play a stronger role?

For one thing, by talking to my employees. “How are you actually doing? What do you need to be able to work well?” Few people will mention the open-plan office. We now see companies setting limits, for example, and that you can’t send emails through their servers from 10pm in the evening to 6am in the morning. That is simply forbidden because they stand by the fact that their people need sleep. We see that companies are starting to create so-called anger spaces. So spaces, and not in the sense of space, punching a punching bag, but communication spaces in meetings where people can just let out their anger and say this is not going well here. And we are all angry sometimes.

How does that work?

It’s about anger space in the sense of “clear the air” meetings or that people can say that they don’t find something OK – even vehemently – that they can let their feelings out. Because these are becoming more important in the work context, because the rising rates of depression and burnout as well as sick days are linked to the fact that we constantly have to push our emotions away. There are organisations that are looking at exactly what the needs of their employees are and how they can be used productively. It is not an end in itself. Of course, organisations have to function and be economical. How can we then create a good working environment? A good working environment also means that people work much more productively, and that is also a benefit for organisations.

This is a shortened version of the interview, you can hear the full length here:

Links to the topic

About Sabrina Schell

About the New Work Institute

Report on selection processes in family businesses

Study on Corporate Social Responsibility in Family Businesses

Instagram account @LizandMollie about feelings

Reference: Gerlitz, A., & Hülsbeck, M. (2023). The productivity tax of new office concepts: a comparative review of open-plan offices, activity-based working, and single-office concepts. Management Review Quarterly, 1-31.

This podcast is produced with the kind support of: Audioflair Bern and Podcastschmiede Winterthur.

Creative Commons Licence

AUTHOR: Anne-Careen Stoltze

Anne-Careen Stoltze is Editor in Chief of the science magazine SocietyByte and Host of the podcast "Let's Talk Business". She works in communications at BFH Business School, she is a journalist and geologist.

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