How Work Was Invented A Century Ago, and Why That Still Limits You Today

Marc Vollebregt
13 min readDec 16, 2020

Do you ever think that the way we run organisations today is not working for us?

You’re not the only one.

In my first article of this series, I explained that our way of organising work and running organisations doesn’t work for us: Only 15% of employees are engaged, 16% of employees have burnout symptoms, and while working remotely, we struggle with loneliness, boredom and stress.

But why does work not work for us anymore? And why does working remotely confront us even more with that?

Those that know me well, know that I’m passionate about making people work better together and improving organisational culture. But those that know me even better, know that I have a bachelor’s degree in history from a distant past; in that history lies our problem.

See, the fundamental principles of how we work together were invented around a hundred and fifty years ago. Since then, what we work on has changed completely, but we still work according to the same principles that were invented over a century ago.

To understand why the way we run organisations is not working for us, we have to understand how we ended up here. So grab a cup of coffee, maybe a hot chocolate, sit down and prepare for a short history lesson, because our story starts a hundred and fifty years ago.

This article is part of a series of three articles, and is based on lectures I gave at Philips, Hyper Island and Frankwatching.

The Invention Of Today’s Work

Around 1850, the world was on the verge of a fundamental change. The newly invented steam engine could generate more energy and newly invented machines allowed people to produce at a faster pace than ever before. Some people started putting these inventions in a big building, stopped working from home in the family, moved from the countryside to the city and started to work in a factory.

The Industrial Revolution allowed people for the first time in the history of mankind to work together in large groups. It was during this profound shift in how people lived and worked that some — mostly men from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States — thought about how these groups could work together in the most effective and efficient ways.

Out of all these people looking for ways to run organisations and organise work, Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford and Max Weber changed how we work most profoundly. Let’s take a closer look at how they did that.

How To Use a Shovel

The year is 1880 and ten workers are standing next to each other in the Midvale Steel Factory in Philadelphia. Each one has a pile of sand to their left and a shovel in their hands.

3.. 2.. 1.. Start! As the workers start moving the piles of sand from their left to their right, Frederick Taylor sits down, carefully observing how long it takes each worker to move the sand, up to the hundredth of a second.

Why would someone do this? Taylor had recently started his career as an engineer when factories started to emerge in the United States. Unfortunately, since working in a factory was quite new, the work was very unstructured and workers were not as productive as they could be.

That’s why Taylor began paying attention to productivity, and started researching how workers should use a shovel. Or rather, how much weight they should shovel to work faster.

After doing the experiment a few times, Taylor saw a pattern: the shovelers worked faster with a bigger shovel, up until a breaking point where the loads became too heavy. So, what’s the most efficient way to use a shovel? Taylor would say you should shovel almost ten kilos a time.

This experiment was the starting point of Taylor’s now famous Scientific Management theory. In his book The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor wrote down how to make large groups of people work together well. Here are his four principles:

  1. From now on, no more rules of thumb. Every task has one right way of doing it: the most efficient way. That’s why work should be split up into small, simple and separate tasks — done by different people.
  2. Work should be divided between managers and workers, where managers spend their time planning and training, allowing the workers to perform their tasks efficiently.
  3. Performance should be monitored, and workers should be instructed and supervised to ensure that they’re working in the most efficient way.
  4. Instead of assigning workers to any job, workers should be matched to their jobs based on their capability and motivation, and trained to work at maximum efficiency.

Taylor’s principles completely changed how we work in an organisation, and his approach would become the foundation for today’s management theory.

Inspired by his work, Henry Ford built on Taylor’s principles and took them to a whole new level.

How To Build a Car

At the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Ford started building cars in Detroit. Back then, it took his employees more than twelve hours to manufacture a car. Inspired by Taylor’s Scientific Management, Ford was looking for ways to organise work better and reduce the production time.

One day, one of Ford’s colleagues came home from a trip to Chicago, where he saw something that would change Ford’s life completely. He had visited a slaughterhouse where workers were processing the meat like normal, but how they did that made it interesting. Instead of the workers moving around the carcasses, the carcasses were moving around the workers. Each worker had one specific task and, upon completion, an assembly line moved the carcass to the next person with another task.

This inspired Ford in 1913 to organise his factory with an assembly line to build his new Ford Model T. The cars were now moving around the workers instead of the other way around, and the process of building a new car was divided into 45 separate steps, each done by someone else.

Creating an assembly line where each worker had one task to do turned out to be a huge success. Instead of taking more than twelve hours to put a car together, it now took Ford only 93 minutes. In fact, cars were produced so fast, that when they were finished, the paint wasn’t even dry. This is one of the reasons why the Ford Model T is generally regarded as the first affordable automobile.

How To Be Professional

Born in 1864 in Germany, Max Weber saw the rise of large organizations, bringing together large groups of people. Like Taylor and Ford, he thought about how people should work effectively in such large groups.

If you’re irritated by how slow things are going at the organisation you work for — you can now blame Max Weber. He believed that in order for organisations to be successful, they should be based on rationality — they should be a Bureaucracy.

In a Bureaucracy, Weber thought, a clear structure and hierarchy should be put in place, with clear rules for who gets to make decisions. But most importantly, there should be a clear separation of professional and personal life.

This means, for example, that your authority is based on your position, not your personality. And if you will get a promotion, it’s because you’re doing your work well, not because of how much your supervisor likes you.

The Challenge With Today’s Work

Principles such as the division of work in tasks and people, a hierarchy between managers and workers, and the separation of the professional and personal life, all led to higher productivity, more consistency in quality of the produced goods and, most importantly, higher profits.

There’s no doubt that the principles Taylor, Ford and Weber invented allowed work to be done as effectively and efficiently as possible — and they thoroughly changed how we work and how we think about work.

But things have changed.

From a western perspective, our work is radically different now than it was a century ago. Our economies are no longer industrial, but mainly knowledge-based. Most of the work has changed from being manual, making things, towards service work based on knowledge, ideas and creativity. If you’re reading this, your work probably consists of two things: working behind a computer and interacting with others. You’re probably not assembling a car engine yourself, am I right?

Work changed from actions to thoughts, and there lies a problem.

Work changed profoundly, but we still work according to the same principles that were thought out for assembly lines a hundred years ago.

Do you have at home one of those wooden boxes with holes in various shapes and matching blocks? Or maybe you had one when you were a kid? Our work and way of organising work are like one of those. A century ago, the principles by which we organised work matched our work, but today that’s not the case.

So, why is this so important now?

Because we unconsciously or consciously work according to outdated principles, we and our organisations are limited from doing our best work. Especially now.

Can you think which are the three biggest challenges you face when working together with others? I bet at least two of them result from still applying legacy principles to today’s work.

Let’s take three examples and see which legacy principle is at its origin:

Being Productive

How can people be productive, and how can you measure their productivity? To make people work together productively, the following legacy principle was invented over a century ago:

Imagine you and I both worked in a factory a hundred years ago. I was working behind the assembly line, and you were my manager. How did this principle work then?

If I was standing behind the assembly line, I was probably working. And if I didn’t stand there, I wasn’t working. It’s that simple. To monitor if I was actually working, you just checked if I was there or not. To make me work faster, you accelerated the assembly line a little bit, because its speed determined how fast I worked. And lastly, since the amount of time I worked determined how productive I was, you could measure my productivity simply by knowing how many hours I worked. That’s why we had to work at least a certain amount of hours a day.

While this principle worked well a century ago, applying it to our work today limits us enormously. Even more so when working remotely. Can you take a guess how? Let me give you an example.

Are you only working when you’re sitting behind your desk or laptop? And is sitting behind a desk the most productive way to do your work? Say you have a challenge that you need to think about for a bit. If you asked your manager right now you’d like to take a walk in the park to execute the thinking part, how would they react? Supportive? Lucky you! Or would they say no, since you’re being paid to work and that’s not it?

If work today is about thinking and sharing thoughts, maybe the most effective and efficient way to do your work is to go for a walk in the park — especially when you’re working from home. Kant, Nietzsche and Einstein all walked often, and did their thoughts have impact? I think you know the answer.

When everyone does their work, how do you measure their productivity?

With the transition to working from home, some bigger corporations have installed software to track their employees on the basis of “measuring productivity”. To do that, they directly translated the legacy principle into a modern version by monitoring if people were sitting behind their laptop working. Just Google “remote employee monitoring software”, and terms like keyboard tracking and screenshot capturing pop up.

Would I feel trusted and safe if my employer starts tracking me like that? Definitely not. If you hire someone and you can’t trust if they’re working or not without your supervision, maybe you’ve hired the wrong person.

Because our work requires a lot of thinking and sharing thoughts, if you do your work well, I shouldn’t care how you do it, if you go for walks, don’t work nine-to-five or work six hours productively. Stop focusing on input, and start focusing on output and outcome.

Being Creative & Innovative

How do you get people and your organisation to be as creative and innovative as possible? To understand how applying old ways of thinking about work limits you in at work today, we need to take a little detour by introducing the following legacy principle:

To make people work well together in a factory, everyone had to work the same way and was assessed based on their work, not on who they were. Therefore, separating our professional and personal life allowed us to work better together.

But separating the two limits us today when delivering our best work. Being creative and therefore innovative is all about sharing ideas, some good and some, well… not so good. Ideas are much more personal than doing operational work. How can I share ideas with you if I don’t feel safe while doing it?

Psychological safety is important. It means that I am encouraged to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without being punished or humiliated for doing so. To feel safe, to take risks, and to be vulnerable in front of others, team members need to trust other team members. That’s why trust is so important. To build trust you have to open up to each other by getting to know each other on a personal level.

I’m not saying your professional and personal lives should be one, I believe it’s important to have a separation between the two, especially when working from home. I’m just saying that getting to know each other on a personal level leads to a safe space where truly creative ideas will arise.

Read how to create psychological safety in my article Why Psychological Safety Is Essential For Your Team’s Success.

Furthermore, to be as creative and innovative as possible, it’s good to have as many different perspectives as possible. But we’ve learned to leave our personalities at the entrance. Let me ask you, can you really be yourself at work?

If everyone in the organisation has to act and think the same, how can your organisation be truly creative? That’s why it’s so important that people can be themselves at work. That’s why your professional and personal life should be closer to each other.

Being a Leader

How to be the right leader? As I explained above, a century ago, leaders based their actions on the following principle:

While some leaders still lead the old fashioned way, others feel that the old way of leading others doesn’t work well today. That’s why leadership books are so popular. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll be bombarded by the amount of them. And there’s a reason for it.

Change is faster than ever before, there are more stakeholders involved and processes are more complex. Combine that with a serious portion of uncertainty that you need to deal with, and don’t know the answer to — especially now — and you’ll understand that in many ways, today’s work is more challenging than it was before.

Furthermore, employees never have been educated so high as today. The past century, the average years of schooling in countries like the Netherlands, the US, the UK, Sweden, France, Japan and South Korea, rose from two years to almost thirteen!

What does it then mean to be a manager? Is it still the best way to lead others by telling others what they should do? They probably know better what they should do than you. Being the right leader comes back to supporting others with what they need, instead of telling them what to do — perhaps by asking the right questions. That’s why leading others is about trust. Because can you trust your colleagues they will make the right decision? And can your colleagues handle the responsibility that comes with more freedom?

With a new way of leading based on new principles, maybe we need a new word replacing manager. The probable origin of the word manager comes from the Italian maneggiare which meant putting a horse through the paces of the manège.

Luckily, a lot of leaders are already leading others based on principles such as trust and support. Therefore this principle shows that if we need and want to, we can ditch the legacy principles and align our way of working to today’s work.

What’s next?

Work changed profoundly, but we still work according to the same principles that were thought out for assembly lines a hundred years ago. This way of organising work results in shockingly low engagement rates and high burnout numbers. It’s that simple. How can you as a leader then make your organisation or team work better together?

In my opinion, these principles, or how we think about work, working together, and working productively, are organisational culture. When I’m talking about culture, I’m not talking about your office’s ping pong table, that christmas party where something happened that gave your colleagues a funny story to tell — I’m not even talking about those fluffy words on the wall.

When I’m talking culture, I’m talking about the conscious and unconscious values and actions of your organisation. The combination of all these values is what gives the company a certain feel, a certain culture.

Why should you care about culture? Unfortunately I see a lot of people misinterpreting it, and therefore not knowing the challenge — and thus the solution — lies in their culture. But you do now!

Once you understand your culture, or the principles on which you organise work, you will first of all deal with the challenges of low engagement, burnout and stress. But moreover, a good culture will bring more value to your employees, your customer and the planet.

That’s why the next article will be about understanding and changing your culture in a concrete, simple and effective way. See you then!

Marc Vollebregt makes working together work. If you’re curious to know more about how we can work together, drop me an email at, or head to my website