We need visible role models
at the top

Journalist: Editorial team of ceo | Photographer: Editorial team of ceo, University of St. Gallen | Magazine: Work in progress – November 2020

The world of work is changing and, with it, companies’ management culture, says Heike Bruch, Professor of Leadership at the University of
St. Gallen. Especially now after the experience of coronavirus, managers need to redesign work and leadership in a courageous and responsible way, she explains. Heike Bruch is a researcher and coach in the areas of “new work transformation”, “energy, speed and momentum” and “leadership of the future”.

What have been the most striking changes in the world of work over the last ten years?

Companies are gradually moving away from traditional hierarchical structures towards network organisations with much smaller teams. They can react more quickly and flexibly than before, have become more innovative and are endeavouring to provide their employees with greater freedom. The purpose behind this is to keep pace with the rapid speed of developments and to support change and initiative-taking. And to increase their attractiveness as an employer.

What do employees expect from the future world of work?

Individualisation is shining a light on the differing needs of the individual. For some, flexible working time and unrestricted project-based work is important. Others still need well-defined structures and regular hours. Not everyone simply wants more freedom – far from it. Because more freedom and flexibility also means greater responsibility and requires greater personal skills, in particular the ability to set boundaries. This has also been made evident by the introduction of mobile work and working from home. During the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen a sudden increase in mobile and flexible work models. But there aren’t really any alternatives. Mobile work can sometimes be more challenging because the divide between professional and private life becomes blurred. There is a danger of feeling isolated, and you need much more self-discipline. Some relish this, while others prefer to be in the office.

What do companies want?

The future world of work is one where the wishes of the company and those of the employees will be much better aligned by managers. The “new work” concept means employees can work more flexibly, take on more responsibility and be more committed to the company and are given the best conditions to achieve that. This is also the approach of “unbossing”, where barriers, rigid structures and hierarchies are broken down so that people can achieve their goals without disruption. Ways of working that include a lot of empowerment and employee freedom only function, however, if the employees have the requisite personal skills as well as the right cultural conditions. In a “new work” culture, traditional values like trust, reliability, conscientiousness and loyalty play a key role. These virtues sound old-fashioned, if not obsolete, but are in fact essential elements of success in these complex, highly interconnected and fast-changing times.

Heike Bruch (53) has been the Professor of Leadership at the University of St. Gallen since 2001 and heads its Institute for Leadership and Human Resource Management. Her research and practice focus on “new work transformation”, “energy and momentum” and “leadership of the future”. She is one of the leading academics in human resources research in German-speaking Europe, as well as one of Switzerland’s 100 most successful women. She studied and worked at the Free University of Berlin, the University of Hanover and London Business School. Heike Bruch supports leaders in business and politics and founded the energy factory St. Gallen.

The “new work transformation” is in full swing. What does this term mean?

The new work transformation is the transformation of the working world from traditional, location-based, highly hierarchical work to a network organisation with mobile/flexible work, a flattened hierarchy and fluid structures. Even before coronavirus, more than 90% of companies were undergoing the new work transformation. In this context, job profiles and requirements are changing in a disruptive way. And technology is a key driver here. This represents a huge opportunity, especially for young people. They bring a different, modern perspective to work and technology.

Not everyone will benefit …

There’s also a gloomier side to this scenario which involves winners and losers. Rapid technological developments mean that some qualifications will no longer be needed. We could see a massive increase in the number of people facing issues such as exhaustion, overload or isolation.

How can this be mitigated?

We need to make the right decisions now that put us on a path towards a positive scenario. This is the responsibility of company leaders, but also of educational institutions, politicians and society as a whole – each and every individual.

When compared with the rest of the world, how are Swiss employers doing in the new work transformation?

Some US companies, especially in the IT sector, are further ahead than companies here. The IT industry is leading the way in terms of speed, digital working, new ways of working and customer relationships. Most companies in the USA and Asia are not so far along. They are lacking something that is a key strength in western Europe and Switzerland. Here, we have a more democratic culture, where workers collaborate as equals and receive targeted skills training. We should build on this. But Switzerland also has some areas where it needs to do some catching up. For example, we fall behind somewhat when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship. We have a lower risk appetite.

What do the successful ones do differently?

The new work transformation needs to penetrate deep into the underlying structures and be driven forward boldly, consistently and with a systematic approach. Leadership and corporate culture make the difference, as shown by a study conducted during the current coronavirus crisis. Companies that had already leveraged trust and flexible ways of collaborating as part of trans­formational leadership were already more successful and are now also coping with the current crisis much more effectively. Others only strengthened those elements of new work that were unavoidable during the pandemic: working from home, virtual collaboration and digital communication. They are now entering a phase where their people are longing for leadership, role models and cultural game rules. Some companies are now making the mistake of moving back towards a “command and control” approach. Even though the crisis means leaders need to provide greater direction and make certain things clear from the top down, authoritarian or overly transactional leadership is counter-productive. The crisis needs to be managed through modern leadership. Companies that give their leaders and employees freedom and offer individualised models will be the ones that are successful – they will make it possible to organise work in a way that allows employees to optimally accomplish their tasks while giving them options so they can individually adapt their working style to fit their skills and preferences.

The Institute for Leadership and Human Resource Management (IFPM) at the University of St. Gallen focuses on research, teaching and practical support in the fields of leadership and human resource management. Professor Heike Bruch and her team work very closely with companies and an international research network on practical issues in areas such as energy and momentum, leadership culture, healthy performance and new work. Empirical and field-tested findings inform their teaching, training for managers and cooperation with companies – following the univer­sity’s guiding principle “From Insight to Impact”. To address the topic of new work, Professor Heike Bruch founded the company consortium “Pioneering – Future Leadership & Work” in 2015.


How important will leadership be in the future world of work in general?

A common misconception these days is that leadership has become less important or is simply not needed anymore. “Unbossing” is important, but if it is misunderstood and leadership is weakened, it leads to a laissez-faire style of management. What’s really needed is a modern form of leadership that sets down new rules of play.

What role does leadership play in the transformation process?

New, inspiring leadership should take the place of traditional management styles. Leadership should encourage an understanding of the meaning behind our work, provide autonomy and foster decen­tralised initiatives – it should move us towards achieving a goal together instead of taking a “top down” approach. This type of transformational leadership has been empirically shown to be the most effective form of leadership, during times of crisis and otherwise. In the context of “new work”, it is critical for success.

“A common misconception these days is that leadership has become less important or is simply not needed anymore.”

Isn’t leadership about more than just inspiring people?

Inspiration is essential. But it should be accompanied by a broader, ambidextrous leadership spectrum that addresses the requirements of different work contexts in different ways. Some work requires the highest level of precision, quality and efficiency. This is still important in many companies and needs to be supported by management. There are also an increasing number of tasks that are much more about innovation, creativity and a start-up approach. This work requires a different type of support. Both leadership styles – results-oriented and explorative – are important and should be communicated clearly and applied explicitly, but the two should not be mixed.

What does it mean to be a role model?

Evoking enthusiasm in others for their work, encouraging thought and identifying connections are key leadership tasks. This is not only the case for lower levels of management – senior management in particular must visibly set an example for modern approaches to working. This has often been lacking during the pandemic, and more and more middle managers have been looking for greater direction and visible role models at the top.

Where does trust come in?

Trust has always been important, but now in a modern working world it is the crucial factor for effective leadership and collaboration. “New work” means that in the future people will have more freedom and autonomy and will do much more virtual working, in changing teams and with people that they might never have met in person. Managers can only relinquish control and allow their staff to work autonomously if they have complete trust in them. And only then will the team show full commitment and work together to achieve what’s possible.

Heike Bruch – In the spotlight

What were you doing 20 years ago?
I had come back from London to be a professor at the University of St. Gallen and was full of enthusiasm.

20 years ago, could you have imagined that you’d be in this management role today?
I was not thinking so far ahead at that time. But our team at the university has accomplished a number of things that I wouldn’t have thought possible. While other things were not as easy as I had expected.

What is your personal vision of the future world of work?
My vision and that of our team is a world of work where everyone is fully committed to their work and uses their energy to shape our future in a responsible way.

What do you consider important when managing your employees?
For me, it’s vital that we focus our work on what is important for society and the economy. And that everyone in the team is aware of the influence our work has on students and companies and that we take this responsibility seriously. We want to support companies in a way that enables them to responsibly shape the future and develop knowledge together with them that provides other leaders with direction and energy in their leadership tasks. Our work motto is “responsibly shaping the future”.

Your most important project right now?
The question we’re currently working on is: how will leadership change in the context of “new work”? And what does responsible leadership look like? These questions will be decisive for the future overall. They have become incredibly more important now in light of COVID-19 and its consequences. New work, leadership, responsibility – these things are all considerably more difficult during the crisis, but also enormously important.

Your message to managers? To CEOs?
Courage, enthusiasm and resilience are essential.