A brief review of the history of work

In past centuries, apart from slavery, people worked on the land or in crafts in a relatively independent way. Knowledge intensive work was learned in a master-apprentice relationship and often performed in guilds or other professional associations. It was not until the Industrial Revolution, which began in the nineteenth century, when major changes in work and the way we work occurred. The ability to mechanize simple or complex work tasks dramatically changed the role of the worker. The principles of Frederick Tayor, as described in the Scientific Management theory (Taylor, 1911), defined the worker as being an integral part of a well-oiled machine. The division of labor into small repeatable tasks became a way of increasing worker productivity. To control the worker output, management layers were created, resulting in a hierarchical top-down organization; the Machine Bureaucracy was born (Mintzberg, 1978). Taylor’s principles did not restrict themselves to industrial production facilities; offices were also seen as ‘paper-processing-and-production’ facilities, leading to a deeply embedded industrial mind-set, that this is the way work should be done.

The result of Scientific Management was a low-level employee control with virtually no opportunities for personal development. Though the Hawthorne studies in the mid-1920s already suggested social factors were more important predictors of employee performance than physical ones (Wickström, 2000), it was not until the 1960s that job enrichment, giving employees some of the responsibilities that used to belong to their supervisors, started to emerge. Herzberg defined job autonomy as one on the most important motivators (Herzberg, 1966). In the 1960s, things slowly started to change: Employees were no longer considered to be machines, but creatures with needs and desires, such as autonomy and responsibility; individuals, who become motivated by need fulfilment. The Job Characteristics Model from the 1970s gave notice to the fact that employees’ needs were important predictors of employees’ responses to their work environment (Hackman & Oldham, 1976). In the 1980s and 1990s the increased industrial competition fueled the notion that organizations needed to drastically change the way they operated; business processes became a focal area. In their seminal work on business process improvement, Hammer & Champy (1993), describe a ‘New World of Work’, with process-based tasks and a flat, non-hierarchical, organization model. They define information technology as ‘rule-breaking’ for the way business processes would radically change. One of the ‘breaking rules’ they address is ‘information being available on multiple places at the same time, even on portable devices’.

By the end of the 1990s and early 2000s the concept of virtual, boundary-less, high performance and collaborative organizations emerges, abandoning all traditional organizational structures (Child & McGrath, 2001; Ghoshal & Bartlett, 1997). In their research on organizational form in an information-intensive economy, Child & McGrath (2001) present the main themes for the traditional hierarchical bureaucracy and the new horizontal organizational form (see figure).


Even though work has changed in the past decennia, the changes have occurred in a slower pace than often anticipated. Due to the cost and (low) functionality of IT systems, many of the early expectations only partly became reality. Meel (2011) states that at that time technologies were not yet able to provide the speed, power, and ease of use, that people need for mobile and flexible work styles, or they were just too expensive.



Child, J. & McGrath, R.G. (2001). Organizations Unfettered: Organizational Form in an Information-intensive Economy. Academy of Management Journal. 44(6), 1135-1148.

Ghoshal, S., & Bartlett, C.A. (1997). The individualized corporation. A fundamentally new approach to management. New York, USA: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-88730-806-6.

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16(2), 250-279.

Hammer, M., & Champy, J.A. (1993). Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. Ch. 4 & 5. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. ISBN 0-06-662112-7.

Herzberg, F. I. (1966). Work and nature of man. Cleveland, OH: World.

Meel, J. van. (2011). The origins of new ways of working: Office concepts in the 1970s. Facilities, 29(9-10), 357-367.

Mintzberg, H. (1978). The Structuring of Organizations – A Synthesis of Research. Pearson Education. ISBN-13 978-0138552701.

Taylor, F. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management. New York and London, Harper & brothers.

Wickström, G., & Bendix, T. (2000). The Hawthorne effect – what did the original Hawthorne studies actually show? Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 363-367.



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