Stanley H. Pinstripe's clever desk
Boston — When David Guest writes an interoffice memo, his desk corrects the spelling. Nothing major, mind you. It doesn't know how many "i"s there are in Mississippi." But a slip of the finger like "tje" will be changed to "the instantly. And if Mr. Guest wants to send the memo to a branch office in Houston, he doesn't have to wait for the afternoon mail. A touch of a button, and the correspondence zips to Texas quick as a phone call.
Mr. Guest doesn't work at National Aeronautics and Space Administration's mission control. He is a vice-president at the New York advertising firm Young & Rubicam, where his automated office is full of electronic gadgets designed to free white-collar workers from time-wasting chores. His talented desk, outfitted with a word-processing terminal, helps him research as well as write.
"I can look up any file, find out when it was written, who it was sent to, the last time I looked at it, and the date it was created," he says.
When he wants to call accounting, the terminal beams up a personal phone book for quick reference. And it keeps track of his expense account to make sure he doesn't run over budget.
As office salaries rise and the cost of microelectronics drops, such equipment will fill more and more offices, mechanizing clerical tasks to squeeze more work out of each day -- and, some fear, squeezing secretaries out of jobs.
Chattering typewriters will fall silent, replaced by the softly clicking keyboards and TV screens of word processors. The gray filing cabinet that never quite closed right will be obsolete, outmoded by microfiche and other miniaturized information storage systems. Mail rooms will gather dust, with document transmitted by desktop electronic mail devices.
For Stanley H. Pinstripe, rising young executive of 1985, office automation will mean a totally different style of working. Through a VDT (video display terminal) on his desk, he'll have access to computer-stored office reports, contracts, purchase orders, and other pieces of paper. If preparing an interoffice report on widget production, for instance, he could type the key word "widget" into the computer's index and receive all company information pertinent to the topic. A touch of a button, and he could be connected to useful information sources outside the company -- learning at a glance the cost of widgets in Botswana, or federal widget- control regulations.
Swamped by widget data, Pinstripe will compose the report by using the word processing ability of his VDT, one electronic office tool already in wide use. But while today's machines are simply keyboards which print on a video screen instead of paper, Pinstripe's will be more versatile. He'll be able to draw on it, for one thing, so the report can be dotted with illustrations of widgets -- left-handed ones in blue, right-handed ones in red. In bored moments, he can doodle electronically, in four colors.
Once finished, the widget study will be instantly available to anyone in the company through the shared computer system, including the branch managers of widget plants in Pawtucket and Catatonia. The managers won't need to travel to headquarters. They will be able to discuss the report by teleconference -- with a large-screen closed-circuit TV linking headquarters and field offices.
And since personal calendars will be on the computer as well, the managers will be able to arrange the meeting in a split second, checking with the computer for the first time all of them are available. The computer system will automatically mark the meeting on each manager's calendar, and pester them with reminders on their display screens.
The Diebold Group, a management consultant firm, estimates an office equipped like Pinstripe's could slash administrative costs as much as 15 percent.
Corporations like IBM, Burroughs, Xerox, and Wang Laboratories are preparing products for a market which will reach an extimated $15 billion by 1985.
But how will this gadgetry affect the secretary down the hall, or the filing clerk over in personnel? Will they lose their jobs? Or will new and more challenging positions open up?
Working Women, a national association of office workers, wants to keep the office of 1985 from turning into a sweatshop.
"We fear the much-vaunted management conception of 'the office of the future' is nothing more than the factory of the past," says executive director Karen Nussbaum. "We welcome automation that would enhance our jobs. Much of the new technology could do that. But many managers are using it to reduce a secretary's job to the smallest possible component."
In many offices which have begun automatizing, according to a Working Women study, the all-purpose general secretary has been replaced by "information storage/retrieval specialists," "administrative support specialists," and "word processing specialists." Each worker has only one endlessly repeated task. Electronic equipment cuts down the need for interaction with other people, and clerical workers become socially isolated. The office becomes a paper-work assembly line.
And while demand for clerical workers in the US is still strong, some European governments are predicting massive secretarial unemployment for their own countries in the 1990s.
"But the US Department of Labor doesn't even have a method of calculating the impact of automation on employment projections," says the Working Women's executive director.
Management consultants agree that visitors to the office of Stanley Pinstripe will see fewer people in the typing pool. "Sure, there'll be less of a demand for secretaries as we know them today," says Dale Kutnick of The Yankee Group. "But we'll find that other jobs will open up. For those that are able to assimilate the new technology, these jobs will be on a higher level, with greater responsibility."
In some ways, says Mr. Kutnick, the secretary of today is in the same position as a farmhand before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.
"The Industrial Revolution brought people to the cities and gave them different jobs. The automated office won't involve quite such a wholesale change, but I think it will revolutionize the way we do business."
But like any revolution, the "old guard" isn't accepting the change with open arms. In the early days of word processing, computer-shy secretaries found themselves confronted with terminals good at the data processing but difficult to use. Many became frustrated and defeated the computer by simply refusing to learn its operation.
"The challenge is making the system user-friendly," says Ann Mayfield, consultant on information systems with the research firm Arthur D. Little & Co. "You're dealing with people who have no knowledge of 'computerese.' They don't want any. You'll have to make a terminal as easy to use as a phone is now."
But Karen Nussbaum has little use for the term "user- friendly."
"It's buzzword meaning, 'We just want you to accept what you're doing.' It doesn't have anything to do with substantive changes. We want to maintain variety in our jobs, have social contacts, get promoted, and develop skills. We want to eliminate as much of the repetitive work as possible."
But it is clear some kind of change is inevitable. Over the past decade, factory workers have increased their productivity 90 percent, while their office counterparts have produced only 4 percent more over the same period. In an age of space shots and Boeing 747s, the American office is still as slow as a horse and buggy. White-collar automation could help solve this troubling problem. The challenge will be easing the social stresses caused by making every office modern as Stanley H. Pinstripe's.