Office Life 20 Years Ago, Same Tasks, Different Tools

In 1994 I worked for a Tour Operator, both in the UK and overseas.

  • I had a desk phone but I had no mobile phone
  • I had a computer (Windows 3.0 with Wordperfect and Excel, floppy disk drive) but I did not have email or internet
  • We had an office fax machine
  • We had in trays on our desks

How did stuff get done?

Sending a group internal email

We'd draft a memo on our computer, print it off and write a header with the names of people you needed to see it. You'd pop it in the in tray of the first person. They read it, signed it and passed it to the next person. The last person would send it back to the writer. If urgent, we did one copy for every person.

Sending an attachment

We'd print a document put it in an envelope and use the post (Or - the internal post: there were special reusable envelopes that we'd use. You'd scratch out the previous name and enter your new recipient and drop it in the internal post. The post person would pick it up and deliver it to the relevant desk. If it was on the same floor you'd just drop it by yourself).

Send an SMS

You'd just call. If it went to voicemail you'd leave voicemail. Voicemail was SMS.

Book a meeting

I had a paper diary. In it were all my meetings, in pen. In the front of the diary were all my main contacts (phone numbers). If I needed a meeting, I called them to arrange it, wrote it into my diary and went to the meeting.

Reserve a meeting room

Easy. Go to the meeting room and write your name in the diary for the meeting room. Or - ask a PA if it was an important room.

Scanning a document

We did have photocopiers. Analogue scanning.

Pitch deck (presentations)

Slides were printed onto transparent plastic and then you used an overhead projector to display the slides. The trick was to get them the right order, ready to take on and off in the right order.

Clearly we've moved on

What I find interesting is that although friction is reduced, speed increased, there are potential downsides to these changes too.

Email has replaced most phone calls. I used to spend a lot of time of the phone. Emails can be searched through to find information for months and years afterwards. Sometimes however a phone call is much quicker (and easier) and it helps to build relationships fast.

Communication was less transparent. You received less information. Yet, with the increase in information that we receive now, we have to be a lot better at filtering.

Speed of transactions are much faster. Getting information between parties across locations is very fast these days. That's good, although I've noticed less planning ahead because things can be done quickly as they arise and people have come to expect it.

The next 20 years I'm sure will bring more changes. We will adapt. We have the same needs, we'll just use different tools.

Do it better

Ev Williams, cofounder of Twitter put it nicely at last years XOXO conference in Portland, Oregon...

Williams said the internet is

“a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely. Those who lose sight of basic human needs — who want to give people the next great idea — will have problems.

Many human needs are universal and timeless. The internet provides us with new opportunities provide better solutions.

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