How the Pandemic Disrupted the World of Work

Strokes of fate often cause people to pause and reflect on their own lives, followed by a reorientation. Due to the Corona pandemic, many employees are now asking themselves how they want to work in the future. Their answer is already emerging in the USA as the “Great Resignation.” Although this wave is flatter in Germany, it is still reason enough to think about the crucial role of leadership in the post-pandemic age.

A very influ­en­tial achieve­ment of Peter Druck­er was rec­og­niz­ing the emer­gence of knowl­edge work and the rise of knowl­edge work­ers and think­ing through what this means for man­age­ment. He pos­tu­lat­ed ear­ly on that knowl­edge work­ers could only be man­aged at eye lev­el, long before this term became fash­ion­able. For him, lead­er­ship was an equal­ly vital func­tion to make a group of peo­ple or an entire orga­ni­za­tion suc­cess­ful. In knowl­edge work, the rela­tion­ship between work­er and man­ag­er is no longer char­ac­ter­ized by sub­or­di­na­tion but changes into one of coop­er­a­tion, as in an orchestra:

Their rela­tion­ship, in oth­er words, is far more like that between the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra and the instru­men­tal­ist than it is like the tra­di­tion­al supe­ri­or-sub­or­di­nate rela­tion­ship. The supe­ri­or in an orga­ni­za­tion employ­ing knowl­edge work­ers can­not, as a rule, do the work of the sup­posed sub­or­di­nate any more than the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra can play the tuba. In turn, the knowl­edge work­er is depen­dent on the supe­ri­or to give direc­tion and, above all, to define what the score is for the entire orga­ni­za­tion — that is, what are the stan­dards and val­ues, per­for­mance and results. And just as an orches­tra can sab­o­tage even the ablest con­duc­tor — and cer­tain­ly even the most auto­crat­ic one — a knowl­edge orga­ni­za­tion can eas­i­ly sab­o­tage even the ablest, let alone the most auto­crat­ic, superior.

Peter F. Druck­er in (Druck­er & Macia­riel­lo, 2008, S. 72)

Knowl­edge work shifts the bal­ance of pow­er of Tay­lorism in favor of knowl­edge work­ers. Where­as back in the times of Hen­ry Ford, “ordi­nary” work­ers were depen­dent on their job on the assem­bly line and utter­ly reliant on access to the fac­to­ry’s means of pro­duc­tion and ulti­mate­ly on their man­ag­er, knowl­edge work­ers always car­ry their means of pro­duc­tion in their heads. And they can take it with them wher­ev­er they go. Thus, the knowl­edge work­er is no longer depen­dent on the orga­ni­za­tion and the man­ag­er, but con­verse­ly, the orga­ni­za­tion and the man­ag­er depend on the knowl­edge work­er. Accord­ing­ly, Peter Druck­er con­clud­ed that knowl­edge work­ers must be man­aged like vol­un­teers, i.e., as if they were not paid but were in the orga­ni­za­tion out of con­vic­tion and for the com­mon cause.

Alto­geth­er, an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple who are full-time employ­ees have to be man­aged as if they were vol­un­teers. They are paid, to be sure. But knowl­edge work­ers have mobil­i­ty. They can leave. They own their means of pro­duc­tion, which is their knowl­edge. What moti­vates — and espe­cial­ly what moti­vates knowl­edge work­ers — is what moti­vates vol­un­teers. Vol­un­teers, we know, have to get more sat­is­fac­tion from their work than paid employ­ees, pre­cise­ly because they do not get a pay­check. They need, above all, chal­lenge. They need to know the organization’s mis­sion and to believe in it. They need con­tin­u­ous train­ing. They need to see results.

Peter F. Druck­er in (Druck­er & Macia­riel­lo, 2008, S. 72)

As cor­rect as these insights were and still are in the­o­ry, lit­tle has changed in prac­tice in recent decades. Strict hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures are still the mea­sure of all things, and meet­ing as equals on eye-lev­el remains — if at all — lip ser­vice. That man­agers would be reluc­tant to give up their posi­tion of pow­er was expect­ed, even if some have cer­tain­ly recon­sid­ered and mod­ern­ized their con­cep­tion of lead­er­ship. But we equal­ly would have expect­ed that knowl­edge work­ers would become increas­ing­ly aware of their new­ly gained pow­er posi­tion and thus demand this rev­o­lu­tion in man­age­ment. In some indus­tries, this is true, and the say­ing “War for tal­ent is over-tal­ent has won!” has been true there for some time, but the broad mass of knowl­edge work­ers still duti­ful­ly fit into the old structures.

There is plen­ty of room for spec­u­la­tion about the rea­sons for this. The pres­sure of suf­fer­ing seemed to be not sig­nif­i­cant enough. The Coro­na pan­dem­ic changed that abrupt­ly and opened up new per­spec­tives for many knowl­edge work­ers. The great tur­moil led to a great deal of reflec­tion and reori­en­ta­tion, result­ing in what econ­o­mist Antho­ny Klotz apt­ly called “The Great Res­ig­na­tion.” The pan­dem­ic turns into a dis­rup­tion of the world of work.

At an unusu­al­ly high rate, employ­ees in Amer­i­ca quit their jobs in the sec­ond half of 2021. Although some of the quits now might have been post­poned because every­one was hap­py hav­ing a secure job back in 2020, this does not ful­ly explain the increase in quits. Right now, the wave of lay­offs seems to be get­ting big­ger month by month, as the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute’s JOLTS (Job Open­ings and Labor Turnover Sur­vey) results clear­ly show in the lat­est update of June 1, 2022:

This trend is not yet as extreme in Ger­many, but this is prob­a­bly due to cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. Ger­man employ­ees like things to be secure and pre­fer to stay with the same employ­er through­out their entire career; in the auto­mo­tive indus­try, they choose the same employ­er where their father and grand­fa­ther already “made it.” This cul­ture of Ger­man indus­tri­al offi­cial­dom nat­u­ral­ly damp­ens any wave of lay­offs, as Amer­i­ca is cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing with the Great Resignation.

Nev­er­the­less, dis­sat­is­fac­tion is also stir­ring in Ger­many, evi­dent in a sig­nif­i­cant increase in employ­ees’ will­ing­ness to change employ­ers: “Almost one in two employ­ees in Ger­many (48 per­cent) is inter­est­ed in chang­ing employ­er or is even active­ly look­ing. That is more than in any pre­vi­ous sur­vey. Two years ago, this share was only 36 per­cent, and four years ago, it was only 18 per­cent,” writes EY in its Job Study 2021 (Hinz & Heinen, 2021).

Quelle: EY Jobstudie 2021 (Hinz & Heinen, 2021)
Source: EY Job­studie 2021 (Hinz & Heinen, 2021)

The pan­dem­ic, with its part­ly mas­sive mea­sures, the polit­i­cal­ly incit­ed and medi­al­ly staged fear, and last but not least, the painful expe­ri­ence of ill­ness or even death has made many peo­ple think about their own lives, as is always the case in extreme per­son­al sit­u­a­tions. How­ev­er, due to the glob­al extent of these extreme sit­u­a­tions, the effects man­i­fest as a world­wide trend and do not remain in the indi­vid­ual sphere as is the case with oth­er strokes of fate. 

In addi­tion, the mea­sures them­selves have abrupt­ly and fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the way many knowl­edge work­ers work. Knowl­edge work has freed itself from place and time and has final­ly gone dig­i­tal. Even before the pan­dem­ic, it made less and less sense to go to the office to work, but this is how things were, and after all, it was expect­ed — not least by the boss, for whom only a vis­i­ble employ­ee is a hard-work­ing employee.

So, on the one hand, the pan­dem­ic with its hor­ror was the trig­ger for a great deal of think­ing about how we will work in the future and per­haps no longer want to work. On the oth­er hand, it imme­di­ate­ly pro­vid­ed some answers to this ques­tion. Com­pa­nies that want to attract or at least retain employ­ees and their man­agers, in par­tic­u­lar, have to face this here and now. A wave is build­ing up here that can­not be dealt with by masks and social dis­tanc­ing. On the con­trary, pre­cise­ly because of the phys­i­cal dis­tance, human prox­im­i­ty and the open dis­course between employ­ees and man­agers as equals are now required. Tomor­row’s work­ing world begins today, and we will shape it together.

The chess mas­ter has final­ly had his day; what is need­ed now are gar­den­ers who cre­ate a con­ducive envi­ron­ment for the employ­ees entrust­ed to them. Today, more than ever, lead­er­ship means mak­ing oth­ers suc­cess­ful. Lead­er­ship is about pur­pose and trust, as if the employ­ees were vol­un­teers in the orga­ni­za­tion, as Peter Druck­er already demanded. 

The Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship (avail­able in paper­back on Ama­zon) ini­tial­ly drew its moti­va­tion from the ques­tion of how lead­er­ship needs to change in the shift from a more tra­di­tion­al to a more agile orga­ni­za­tion. How­ev­er, it is irrel­e­vant where the impe­tus comes from to address mod­ern, human(e) lead­er­ship. Be it the ground­break­ing real­iza­tion of Peter Druck­er that knowl­edge work­ers need to be man­aged rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent­ly, or be it the agile trans­for­ma­tion that rais­es this ques­tion of new lead­er­ship again and with new urgency. Or be it the pres­sure of this dis­rup­tion of the work­ing world trig­gered by the Coro­na pan­dem­ic and what we have expe­ri­enced indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly and hope­ful­ly learned in the process.


Druck­er, P. F., & Macia­riel­lo, J. A. (2008). Man­age­ment (Rev. ed). Collins.

Hinz, J.-R., & Heinen, M. (2021). EY Job­studie 2021: Kar­riere und Wech­sel­bere­itschaft. [PDF]

Rait­ner, M. (2020). Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship: Six The­ses for New Lead­er­ship in the Age of Dig­i­tal­iza­tion. Ama­zon Dig­i­tal Ser­vices LLC — KDP Print US.


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