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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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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