The office revolution in electronics: some employers take second look

What seemed to be a headlong rush into the "office of the future" is showing a few signs of backing off a bit. Some employers, who were once undertaking a wholesale introduction of word-processing machines and the computerization of many office functions, are responding to vocal opposition and poor productivity from secretaries and clerks and are reconsidering earlier plans to "automate" their offices more fully.

"People don't want to be piece parts in a machine anymore," says Vincent Giuliano, an office technology consultant with Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., research firm. "In the longer run, most production-line offices will dry up. They just don't work that well."

The kinds of offices Dr. Giuliano expects to see "dry up" are those in which a large number of people -- almost always women -- sit a rows of video display terminals (VDTs), typing standardized letters, completing forms, transcribing recorded dictation, and filling or retrieving information -- all completed while the VDT operator is looking at lighted letters on a dark screen.

The key to this "office revolution" is the microprocessor, a less-than-postage-stamp- size electronic chip on which can be recorded more information and directions than could be contained in a room-size computer less than two decades ago. While there were some 1,000 computers in the United States in the 1950s and microprocessors had not been invented, office equipment experts estimate there are approximately 10 million microprocessors in use today.

The microprocessor not only made it possible to computerize many office functions, it became financially feasible, too.

As a result, many word processors were sold as a way to "eliminate the secretary," which is what some employers tried to do.

Florence B. worked for more than a decade for one of these employers, a large East Coast bank. She was a secretary to one of the bank's vice-presidents.

"Then one day they came in and told us there wouldn't be any more secretaries ," Mrs. B. said. The women were told they could either go to the new word-processing centers or become "administrative assistants." Because she was planning to retire in a few years, she chose what she thought would be a slower pace as an administrative assistant.

"Now I have five bosses instead of one," she says.And instead of performing a variety of secretarial duties, she finds her work is much more routine: carrying drafts of letters to the word-processing center, checking the completed letters for errors, and running a variety of errands -- including "going out for coffee."

Those workers who went to one of the word-processing centers ("They call them communications centers, but they're really nothing more than typing pools," Mrs. B. says) were mostly younger. As a result, turnover in those sections has been "very high," she reports.

But the primary reason for the high turnover, say organizations that represent office workers, is the resemblance word-processing centers have to factories, where a person does a small piece of a clerical function instead of performing a variety of skills. In addition, because the skills required to work in these centers are less, the pay is lower and the opportunities for advancement fewer.

"In some places the workers are judged by the number of lines they can produce in a day," commented Janice Blood, of Working Women, an national organization which represents women office workers.

Besides the challenge of overcoming tedium in their jobs, these workers must also face the special difficulties posed by the electronic screens, Ms. Blood pointed out. Many of the screens are poorly positioned, forcing the operator to keep her head lowered, a position that can be uncomfortable on necks and backs. Also, some screens "have poor or weird backlighting that can cause eyestrain," she continued.

As a result of these problems, some employers are finding the increased office worker productivity they expected is just not happening. And while many offices are still installing new systems, others are taking a second look, or are altering their approach to word processing altogether.

One of these is Corning Glass Company of Corning, N.Y. "People who started the move [to word processing] failed to foresee the problems," said Jack Lesser, Corning's manager of administrative services.

To help ease the problems, which included boredom, and "sweatshop surroundings like the typing pools of the 1930s and '40s," Corning made a number of changes which Mr. Lesser thinks might help other firms:

* Keeping the word-processing groups near the managers they are working for, so they feel they are a part of the overall production of the office.

* Encouraging word-processing people to "decorate" their work areas with plants, pictures, or favorite items from home.

* Permitting these people themselves to take the finished work back to the manager who requested it. This helps make them feel they are working for a person instead of a machine and gives them a chance to stretch their legs. "The time lost in these extra trips is more than made up for in productivity," Mr. Lesser asserts.

* Having word-processing supervisors and operators meet frequently to discuss ways to improve the work.

* Trying to hire people specifically for word processing, instead of just shifting well- trained secretaries.

It is not so difficult to find workers to fill this last need. Arthur D. Little's Dr. Giuliano says. "There are a lot of people who don't care about a job for more than the eight hours they are there. They're thinking about a movie they saw last night, or a party they're going to tomorrow night."

Problems with boredom and poorly designed electronic screens are not the only ones employers are encountering. some put the keyboards and screens on desks or modified typing stands -- neither of which meets the special needs of word-processing equipment. To help remedy this, one company, State Farm Life Insurance Company of Bloomington, Ill., had decided to have special furniture made.

"We developed some specifications and asked several furniture manufacturers to come back to us with designs," said Jay Edmonson, State Farm's director of service systems. The company expects the designs to be offered soon, when it will award a contract.

Working Women's Ms. blood note that in some European countries, where more office workers are in unions, labor contracts prohibit them from being kept at word processors for more than two or three hours. In Britain, the postal department's contract states that an employee cannot spend more than 100 minutes a day at a VDT.

The new attitude toward word processing has been felt in that East Coast bank where Mrs. B. works.

"I just heard they're changing some things back," she says happily. "I'm just going to have one boss again."

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