SUZIE STENOPAD, a secretary in the 1960s, would sit in her boss's office, her hands cramped around a pencil, trying to keep up with his staccato dictation. Later, she would pound the keys at a heavy black manual typewriter to type the letters her boss dictated. It might take her 20 minutes to do a letter, allowing for a couple of drafts. For her daughter, Wanda Wordprocessor, office life in the '80s is very different. Her boss, Carl, often dictates letters from his car phone, which she taps right into her word processor. Wanda's spelling is terrible but her spelling checker catches her mistakes. Carl wants to see a copy, so five minutes after he hangs up the phone, it's faxed to him at the branch office in Pawtucket.
The business office is a good place to trace many societal and technological changes over the last four decades.
Pat Kennedy, assistant to the president of Beal & Co., a real-estate firm in Boston, has been in the secretarial profession for 36 years and admits to seeing ``a lot of changes. A lot.'' Since 1962, she has switched from a manual typewriter, to an electric, to a Selectric, to an electronic.
``But word processing was the biggest change,'' she says. ``We can do so much more today with the tools we have in hand.'' Her office, like many others, is a mix of old and new technology. There are personal computers, but Ms. Kennedy still takes dictation by hand on time-tested stenopads. ``All our secretaries do. Contrary to popular belief, it's not a dying art.''
Ruth Murphy, a secretary with the state of Massachusetts for 26 years, has seen the most changes in the last 10 years. ``It's really terrific now,'' she says. ``I thought the word processer was great because it could go back and edit. I work for a deputy commissioner who is a lawyer. They really love to change things once they've seen it in print, so it's made it easier to edit. We can also do electronic mail on it, send mail within the department and to other offices. It's really been a big help.''
Today, 60 to 70 percent of offices have personal computers, says Michael Goulde, industry analyst for CAP International, a market research and consulting firm in Norwell, Mass. And most of that growth, he says, has taken place in the last seven or eight years.
In the old days, making copies meant slipping carbon paper and onionskin behind every sheet of typing paper, a time-consuming and messy process. Or hand-cranking an inky black mimeograph machine or a purple-print ditto machine, often used in school offices. Enter the Xerox copier, standard equipment by the early '60s. Voil`a! Multiple clean copies at the push of a button. Today, photocopying machines have two-sided printing, image-editing, automatic document feeding, sorting. Some can even staple a set of pages.
Quelle relief! says Kennedy. ``I don't think there's a secretary alive who doesn't hate carbon paper.''
The dull black rotary-dial office telephone has been replaced by a sleek one in color with a dizzying array of functions. The new machines automatically dial programmed numbers, forward calls, enable employees around the country to talk at once, and record messages.
Fax machines, which whisk printed information from one machine to another in minutes, are perhaps the biggest change, says Judy Pirani, an industry analyst with CAP International. ``Last year, there were 457,000 businesses with fax machines. This year it's 1 million. And that's way up since 1983, when there were only 50,000.''
But the hottest ticket now for any major business is computer networking - all over the country or even the world by satellite, microwave, fiber optics, or phone lines. That means branch banks can program transactions to the central office computers, an invoice done in New York will result in a shipping label popping up in a Los Angeles warehouse, or someone in Philadelphia can run a program on the London computer.
The use of space has changed dramatically. When Kennedy started working in the personnel department at A&P, she worked in a room with 40 others in long rows of desks. Outside was a bigger office with 250 people, also in row after row of gray steel desks.
``The noise level in those offices was incredible. You couldn't hear yourself think,'' she says.
Today offices are often partitioned and color-coordinated, with carpeting to muffle the clicking keys. Kennedy approves of today's partitioned office space. ``It's much better to have privacy to concentrate on what you're doing.''
Some things haven't changed: Groups of women worked in typing pools in the '60s, in data processing clusters in the '70s, and today in front of flickering green screens. Now, adjustable chairs provide more comfort, and there is concern about the health hazards of prolonged work in front of video display terminals.
This growing dependence on electronic gadgetry means secretaries today need to be trained in more skills.
``They have to know spreadsheets, be able to organize reports and give them to the boss for presentation,'' says Jerry Heitman, executive director of Professional Secretaries International. ``Secretaries have picked up added responsibilities because of the management of information. And along with that comes power.''
Increasingly, the additional responsibilities mean more pay, but not always. ``Pay is still the No. 1 issue,'' Mr. Heitman says.
Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Nine To Five, National Association of Working Women, says the new technology has split the secretary's job in two. Higher-level, more administrative tasks are performed by fewer people; routine drudge work by many more.
``In the typical law office in the '70s, there was an attempt to take secretaries from lawyers and put them in word processor clusters,'' she says. ``Now they've given them back, but you have word processing pools running all night which you didn't have 15 years ago.''
The more things change ...
Not all the changes that have transformed the office are machines. Many are little products that appeared without fanfare and altered daily tasks forever.
Like Post-it brand notes, those little peel off message pads. Designed by a 3M inventor who was frustrated because he kept losing his place in the hymnal while singing in the choir, they came on the market in 1980 and today are one of the top five office-supply items: The others are transparent tape, paper for copying machines, white-out fluid, and file folders.
``Post-its are wonderful,'' says Pat Kennedy, who in her 36 years as a secretary has seen a lot of machines come and go. ``It's a quick little message. They emphasize brevity as opposed to writing a long memo that would in effect say `review this and get back to me.''