I first joined the commercial world in 1984 when I joined the biotechnology company Allelix in Mississauga, Canada. By 1985 I had moved from the lab to the business side in the company, getting involved in business development, marketing and sales support. In the early 90’s I went back to the lab, but that’s another story.
Anyway, in going from an office to a lab I gained the part-time support of a secretary (as assistants were more commonly referred to in those days). That was the first time I had a secretary, except when I had a thesis to be typed – as an interesting aside the secretary who typed my Masters thesis is now the mayor of our town!
I’ve been reflecting on the work process in those days. While the company had a few word processors they were only used by the secretaries – they used 8” floppy disks and printed out on a daisy wheel printer that was kept in a somewhat soundproof cabinet. When I wanted to send a letter I first typically wrote it out by hand and gave the draft to the secretary. She did her best to decipher my scrawl and produced a first ‘typed’ draft, with blank areas where she couldn’t figure out words. I’d then correct that and she’d produce another draft; after a few more possible iterations the letter was finished and was mailed. After a couple of weeks I would typically receive a reply.
If a faster mode of communication was required, we usually used the phone – yes they existed way back then J, but phone rates were much higher and one used them somewhat selectively. If I was out of the office, the secretary would answer my phone and record the message on a special piece of paper. At various periods we also allowed paging via the company intercom if a call was on hold, but as other people found paging to be irritating this approach was sometimes banned for a while, only to be resurrected with a management change.
We also had a teletype, but mostly used this for communication with Japan.
My how things have changed! I work remotely for a software company now, although I do have an office I try to visit once a week to keep it from feeling abandoned. Since we sell a collaborative content management system (Livelink) I think we are probably on the leading edge of new practices, but not that far out. I still run into dinosaurs in the pharma industry that have secretaries to print out their e-mails, but they are in the minority.
I do all my own typing – which I am profoundly bad at – but with a rich, personal auto-correction library in MS Word I don’t have to fix many words. I’d guess that I mistype perhaps one word in four – it’s fun to watch Word fixing as I go. You can tell how bad I am if you communicate with me by instant messaging (IM) – so far the IM clients don’t have auto-correction, but I’m waiting... Probably at least a third of my day is spent with e-mails and much of the rest preparing documents. I’m bemused by people who complain how long it takes to do their e-mail before they can get to their job – in my case it IS a large part of my job. I can’t remember the last time I send a printed letter by mail.
IM has its place – mostly we use it typing people for a quick question or to see if they are free to talk by phone as the majority of my colleagues are also remote workers. There are different camps in the company – I’m in the Yahoo IM camp. But recently Open Text introduced an integrated IM function in Livelink so we are starting to move to that as the company standard.
Then we get to phones and telephony… I have a phone in my office, but it uses our FirstClass product. If you phone me and leave a voice message, that message is forwarded by e-mail to me wherever I am. It is always fun to reply to someone’s v-mail by e-mail and attach the sound file and hear their response. People tend to feel that voice mails are somehow trapped in limited phone system so only you can hear them and will then destroy them. If you choose not to leave a voice mail, you can select from a menu and have the call forwarded to my cell phone or home office. And when I remember, I may have one of these auto-forwarding to the other – each has voice mail too.
I also have access to a standing conferencing facility where I can have up to 16 people dial in toll-free to a teleconference at any time.
We also sell a meeting support tool called MeetingZone, which I use almost once a day to support virtual web meetings; it can also support physical meetings and the dynamics there are very interesting (perhaps the subject of a future posting).
No secretary, no written voice mail messages, no teletype… Big changes, much faster, and in the end I think more efficient.