Once upon a time, there was indeed a time where desks were without computers, where you would actually talk to the person sat a few metres away from you (I know, shocking right?) and when work really did stop at the end of the day.
In the days before email, life in the office was quite different. The telephone and that lesser-used phenomenon known as ‘voicemail’ ruled the day. Rather than dozens of emails, you had dozens of messages to respond to instead – there was actual talking involved…
In fact, people were specifically trained in effective communication via voicemail; how to outline the three main points of their message and ensuring the repetition of the number to call back on. Voicemail was a bit of a nightmare to work with. Unlike email, you couldn’t search, you had to go through your inbox sequentially (even if the most critical message was at the end of the queue) and had to dial-in to check it constantly. The most amusing limitation was perhaps the need to record a message all in one take. You can picture colleagues spending valuable minutes (hours even) of the working day simply recording and re-recording particularly sensitive messages, trying to get the tone just right while the rest of the team tried to keep a straight face. This, coupled with a real-life in-tray of hand-scribbled notes and files and files of paperwork (which now we receive nicely attached to our email in an easy to find, easy to file fashion) and the image painted of office admin and communication is quite the jumble of lost messages, missing papers and inefficient working.
All written correspondence was also very official. There were no mistakes, no sentence fragments, no friendly banter and all written communication was on company letterheaded paper. You couldn’t hide behind the errors of auto-correction tools and it was a real waiting game: responses could take seriously lengthy periods of time. So, if waiting 30 minutes or so for an email response gets you riled, just imagine as the weeks went by…
Then came the fax machine; the SME staple item of the 1980s. Documents could be faxed to other companies, other buildings, other counties in an instant (well, maybe not an instant in the early days, but pretty quickly in comparison to overseas snail mail). Offices would be full to the brim of files of faxed items, confirmation that said faxed item had been received, the original hard copy of the faxed item and all the corresponding paperwork… Not quite as simple as looking at an email chain to track project progression. And whilst in the early days, people replicated this by simply printing out all of their emails instead, email has certainly harked the move towards the more ecological, paperless working.
So aside from fewer paper cuts and easier file sharing, how else does the modern day environment differ from the pre-email era?
The main difference is the fact that work stopped at work. There was no means of communication post-working hours. You didn’t go home to simply log on remotely and answer the emails that had arrived in your inbox in the last few hours whilst you ate/showered/attempted to do some exercise. Messages from clients and colleagues are now sent and opened around the clock. You’re almost expected today be online and available 24/7 – and if you’re not, why not?
Pre-email there was very little that could be done once you’d left the office. The evening was therefore populated with family time, social occasions, leisure and groups dedicated to hobbies that are now losing place in popular culture as we replace down-time with on-line activities, the internet and out-of-office work. In line with this, business expectations have changed. People know you can receive out of hour emails and they’re busy working for the project so reckon you should be too. Striving to be the most efficient, a bit of a martyr even, as you work beyond your expected hours to get things done in the shortest amount of time (“all for the good of the business”) is now part of being seen as the best. Without compromising on quality of the work, this does mean working longer hours and email allows for that.
So while email can certainly be a great time-saver and efficiency creator, it has distanced the worker from colleagues and clients. Email has also (along with social networks) been criticized as causing workers to subconsciously avoid task completion with this need to constantly check their various inboxes, resulting in an unwelcome distraction from their more productive tasks.
Thus, life before email people survived just fine.
They shook hands, talked to each other and as history shows still got the job done. Life before email wasn’t all spinning round in office chairs shouting “whheeee” or making prank phonecalls, there were simply other means of communication and different ways of working. Perhaps, we’d be wise as modern workers to spend a little time reconnecting with the personal nature of business relationships, and less time secretly emailing friends about last night’s TV shows whilst pretending that we’re being super-productive…