The perception of work: the industrial mind-set

The number 1 objection employees have against the implementation of the New Way of Working, and the new flexible office design, is the fear of losing their own desk and work space. Davenport (2005) found employees are often skeptical of open office arrangements, suspecting that the primary benefit is the lower space costs, achieved by ‘packing’ more people into the same physical space.

Employees are often of the opinion that their work requires a concentrated workplace, which the new office does not provide. This opinion may not be 100% legitimate. Research by the Danish Center for New Ways of Working has shown there is often a difference in the way people perceive their work, and the reality of the work they actually do (Bjerrum & Aaløkke, 2005). The reason for this misperception may lie in the ‘industrial mind-set’ of employees and managers: One has to produce visible results; hence individual and concentrated work is essential. In that mind-set informal meetings, telephone calls and other ‘disturbances’, are not seen as ‘real’ work and tend to be ‘forgotten’ or eliminated from the perceived work activities. In their research Bjerrum & Aaløkke (2005) found that there can be major differences between the perception and the actual observation of work. In an IT company, where workers claimed to be working concentrated on their workplaces all day, the actual presence in workplaces, over an observed period of 14 days, was only 45%. These number falls in line with McCue (1978), who found that only about 30% of the individual programmer’s time is spent working alone, about 50% is spent in groups of two or three. In an Australian desk utilization study the perceived time spent at desks was 81%, in reality is was only 40% (Laing & Wittenoom, 2013). Whatever the fraction of time is, it is important the new work environment supports concentrated work when needed. Cost savings of one-size-fits-all approaches may backfire when the kind of work being done is not supported (Davenport, 2005). When all ‘quiet places’ are constantly occupied for meetings, the office should be re-arranged, but not to return to the old situation but to improve on the new one.

The (industrial) misperception of the actual work performed may lead to frustration and complaints to the management, e.g.: ‘I cannot work in this environment’. It may even impact the work satisfaction outside the office: at home or in a third workplace. When the employee works outside the office, in order to avoid interruptions, all perceived ‘not-real-work’ activities may cause irritation and lead to stress for the worker and his or her environment and/or family (Tams et al., 2017). This may result in a lower satisfaction of the employee and a worse work-life balance, whilst a large part of the dissatisfaction is caused by a misperception of work activities, because of an imprinted industrial mind-set. Awareness at the management and workers for the effects of the industrial mind-set and misperception of work, and proper action to change this mind-set, may lead to greater work satisfaction and success in implementing the New Way of Working. Possibly, the opposition against a new work environment and new working methods is not only fed by a misperception of work or an industrial mind-set, but simply by the tendency of people to resist change.



Bjerrum, E., & Aaløkke, S. (2005). Working together: Work space, organization and conception of work. The International Telework Conference 2005, 1-13.

Davenport, T. H. (2005). Thinking for a living: how to get better performances and results from knowledge workers. Harvard Business Press.

Laing, A., & Wittenoom, S. (2013). The Emerging City Workscape : Propositions for Sydney. Strategy+ Aecom.

McCue, G. M. (1978). IBM’s Santa Teresa Laboratory—Architectural design for program development. IBM Systems Journal, 17(1), 4-25.

Tams, S., Grover, V., Thatcher, J.B., & Ahuja, M. (2017). When Modern Technologies Meet Ageing Workforces: Older Workers are more affected by Demands from Mobile Interruptions than their Younger Counterparts. Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.


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