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Re:publica highlights new work order

Crowdsourcing, connected workspaces and flexible hours - technology is changing the way we work. DW's Janelle Dumalaon visited this year's re:publica in Berlin to see how Germany's mid-sized firms are coping.

In The Circle, David Eggers' satire on lives lost to the Internet, a young woman escapes office-drone monotony in a small town to start a new career at a company meant to be an amalgam of Google, Facebook and every other search engine/social media company/Silicon Valley incubator ever founded. All-knowing, all-modern and so very cool.

The novel isn't really about a new career. But the way the protagonist describes the misery at her old job - with the hierarchy and the fact that it was "actually nine-to-five" with "actual punch cards" - is a good approximation of shifting expectations with regard to work and how it should look.

This shift was just one of the many conversations going on at re:publica 2015, which billed itself as the

biggest conference on Internet and society in Europe

. Conference organizers said more than 6,000 people attended on the first day, with "architects, politicians, hackers, bloggers, managers, artists and scientists" among them. Since it was in Berlin, the techno music was practically de rigueur.

Dial-an-expert

Highlighting fluidity in the way work is defined today, Linda Kozlowski, vice president of worldwide operations at Evernote, an efficiency app, cited the formation of the on-demand economy. Technology, she said, enabled more people to work like freelancers do, auctioning off their skills to various contractors around the world as demand arises.

"This lets people develop a specific skillset and the chance to allow people to develop their own businesses," Kozlowski told DW. "As for companies, they will have a much better chance of hiring an expert."

"The resulting competition will result in more innovation and make products better," she added.

In a separate session, Jana Tepe, chief executive of Tandemploy, agreed. Her company is a job-sharing platform which essentially enables several people to do the same job, but at different times. It also connects people with specific skills to help them form teams. Companies like Tandemploy have become more common as people adopt new ways of working.

"We really do feel the strong push to have more colorful working models, with many working in a way that considers their family life and context," Tepe said. "They have more of a feeling that they have more control over their lives and their work."

But would it work in Europe?

Forbes says that 50 percent of the workforce in the US will be made up of freelancers by 2020. With that in mind, some believe a talk about work in Europe is overdue.

There's France, where an inflexible labor market means fixed positions are rigidly protected, making it difficult for companies to give fresher talent a chance. Then of course, there's Greece - the sick man of the eurozone with nearly half of its young people jobless.

And then there's Germany, Europe's economic champion. Employment numbers here are the healthiest in Europe but problems may be on the horizon. Companies within the traditional "Mittelstand" - those mid-sized firms considered to be the backbone of the economy - may have dropped the ball in the push towards digitalization. Many are still struggling to recruit millennials.

"For a time, the prevailing attitude among many of Germany's mid-sized companies was that the Internet was a fad and that it would go away soon enough," said Marco Petracca, the executive director of Cuecon, a marketing firm. "They told themselves they weren't missing anything."

Obviously, those naysayers have since noticed that the World Wide Web is here to stay. But in some ways they've continued to dig in their heels.

Yes to the Internet - but only some of it

"There's a disconnect. They're perfectly happy to use e-mail, walk around trade fairs with iPads and place Amazon orders on their lunch break," Petracca said. "But they'll ban the use of social media during office hours, because office hours are office hours."

These mid-sized firms are in a difficult position. Often they are headquartered in areas far from big city action and they manufacture products unfamiliar to consumers like industrial gears or everyday wiring systems, so brand recognition is a challenge.

They often still attempt to recruit fresh talent by placing job notices in the regional papers. But, as Petracca noted, success is often limited. Jobseekers look at online job portals - and often they look at which systems are the most flexible.

Now, Mittelstand companies do use external service and product providers in their operations. In that sense, they already take part in the so-called on-demand global economy. But Petracca said they would prefer to keep in-house expertise "under lock and key if they could," making Evernote's Kozlowski's aforementioned "expert freelancers" a tough sell.

Still, there is cause for optimism. Kozlowski argues that products manufactured by these mid-sized companies are essential, so it's not as if they're in existential danger in the face of changing work models.

"I think as their customers want more flexibility, want technology to play a bigger role, then they will necessarily have to adjust," Kozlowski said. "Also, new models will have to prove enough of their benefits over time in such a way as to outweigh fears of change."

"It's like the cycle for all technology," she said.

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