Fast Forward

Twenty years have brought dramatic changes to the workplace

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Tim Williams, president of Vermont Document Co., recreates his pose from our 10th-anniversary issue. In 1994, he was with Copytek and laptops were cutting edge. Today, they're commonplace.

Here's a pretty startling piece of information: The fax machine was invented in 1843 56 years before the paper clip. Alexander Bain, a Scottish clock maker devised it the same year Samuel Morse invented the first long-distance telegraph line.

A working model wasn't created until 1865, though, when an Italian abbot, Giovanni Caselli, developed the "pantelegraph," to send pictures and writing between French cities. In 1902, a Dr. Arthur Korn made a fax machine with an optical scanner that let people send plain paper images, and Xerox's Telecopier launched the modern era of the fax machine in 1966. The paper clip, on the other hand, hasn't changed much in its 105 years.

In the 20 years since Business People Vermont was born as Business Digest of Greater Burlington, amazing changes have occurred in the office. There is little doubt, for instance, that the last 20 years have seen dramatic refinement of fax machines and expansion in the way we use them. The same, if possible, is even more true of the computer and all that it has brought into our lives.

1984, for example, was the year the Macintosh marched on to the scene, and the year the IBM PC AT was released; and as amazing as it now seems, it was only 1994 when the U.S. government released control of the Internet, opening the door for the birth of the World Wide Web.

The Mac, of course, was not the first computer that was first imagined by Charles Babbage in 1837 and the first Internet was started in 1969. Once the Web got going, the office never looked back.

Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy is hailed across the country as a leader on technology and Internet issues. The New York Times dubbed him "The Cyber Senator" for his enthusiasm and leadership in that area, according to David Carle, Leahy's press secretary.

Leahy was the second U.S. senator to establish a home page in 1995 Sen. Ted Kennedy was the first "and ever since then, Sen. Leahy's website has been considered the best or one of the best on Capitol Hill," says Carle, who cites awards like the Golden Mouse, which Leahy has won two years running.

Leahy's website does for his constituents what the Web and its spawn have done for the population at large instant access to information and instant communication, 24 hours a day. In 2002, for the first time, says Carle, "e-mail to Sen. Leahy outpaced postal mail, and that's been the case every month since then."

While telephones haven't changed a lot in outward appearance, the way phone calls are switched and forwarded has. In the September 1984 photo (top), operators take calls at The Message Center, which still used switchboards. The shot from our September 2003 issue shows American International Distribution Corp.'s modern call center where employees take orders from clients' customers for goods to be shipped. Each cubicle has a telephone unit and a computer networked to the company database.

Patrick Robins of SymQuest Group Inc. has been in the catbird seat when it comes to changes in Vermont offices. He says he once heard someone say the PC was a great solution looking for a problem. "In other words, what the hell do you do besides put recipes on it?"

In 1985, though, Robins was owner of McAuliffe Office Supply Co., which had just become an IBM PC dealer. He recalls a conversation he had with his CEO, who had just returned from a weekend meeting. "He said, 'Boy, these personal computers are going to change the world.' Then he said, 'See all this information we did? Now, I'd do it all in a spreadsheet.' I'd never heard of a spreadsheet," says Robins. "He said, 'Buy me one,' so I did an HP 120, I think, and he started doing it."

One thing his CEO told him really sank in for Robins. "He said, 'It's going to eliminate pencils and paper,'" Robins' business, and therefore his livelihood, was dependent on pencils and paper, and that was his trigger for embracing of the computer.

"Then around 1992, e-mail hit the scene, which was later based on the Web and based on the network. There's absolutely no question that e-mail and the ability to move data from a large group of people from any source to any source has changed the world."

Tim Williams, president of Vermont Document Co., calls the proliferation of e-mail one of the biggest things to happen in the last 20 years. "Fifteen years ago, it was fax machines, and that was huge; now e-mail is just gigantic ... and voice mail ... and the cell phone. I could be anywhere and still communicate and function.," he says.

While some losses to the computer and the Web were predictable typewriters and adding machines, for example others were less anticipated.

"When we sold the old company," says Robins, "we had 10 or 12 people who were sitting around supporting managers. Now everybody supports themselves; they use PDAs Palm Pilots and their cousins. Here at SymQuest, we have no administrative assistants or secretaries.

"I dock my PDA to my PC every couple of days, so if I drop the thing, I don't lose my file. Then, there's a variety of other tools out there, some of them wireless, so techs in the field can download all the Canon tech data sheets from the Web. They used to do that with books; now the guy is doing it from his car over the Verizon Regional Network."

Robins' office is typical in other ways, as well. A number of employees work from home, some in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York, others in distant parts of Vermont, "who never come in here. They have real-time connections to the 'mother ship' and are looking at the same screen I'm looking at," he says. Laptop computers make this even easier.

Our first magazine came out only a year after the first cellular telephone network was started in the United States, and by 1985, cell phones in cars were becoming widespread. Today, it's fair to say they are ubiquitous, small enough to hide in the palm of the hand, and versatile enough to allow users to play games, check voice mail, send e-mail and photographs, and chat through instant messages in addition to just talking.

The digital revolution opened the door for a new focus on ergonomics, the science of designing equipment and the workplace to relieve physical stress. Someone once called ergonomics "the Latin term for 'expensive furniture." Remember the Balans chair? Jokes aside, ergonomics has also done a lot of good, helping people learn to work smart and use appropriate equipment and furniture.

"You can bear one workers' comp claim against the cost of ergonomic furniture, and it looks pretty reasonable," says Williams. "People are also looking for healthier furniture in terms of ergonomics and in terms of green manufacturing."

Technology is not the only area of change in the workplace in the last 20 years. The 1980s and '90s saw recycling become a business routine, and there was a brief rise in in-house fitness centers in Vermont, even for small to medium-sized businesses. McAuliffe had one for a time.

"I don't think it worked," says Robins. "I think we discovered after a couple of years the employees who go to the club at night have somewhat other motivations social," he says laughing.

How long has it been since you heard the term "Information Superhighway"? It was a hot issue in June 1994. Our 10th anniversary magazine featured two stories about it.

In-house daycare centers were beginning to appear in the '80s, too. Their popularity seems to have waned, at least for smaller businesses.

"That was kind of happening 20 years ago," Robins says. "I think most people have dumped it around here. Everybody realized this is not what we do for a living. It's a pretty big responsibility having all those kids around, and people said let the YMCA do it."

There's certainly been movement on the fashion front. Remember casual Fridays? Michael Kehoe, owner of Michael Kehoe Ltd. on Church Street, thinks casual Fridays and the dot-com boom paralleled each other.

"It's as if the rest of the country caught up to the dress style of Vermonters," says Kehoe, when asked about the movement, adding that the trend "was a sort of disrobing of what had been an icon of corporate dress as established by IBMers 30 years ago with the black suit, white shirt and solid-colored tie." Casual Friday appears to be in the past, although in Vermont, casual dress will most likely always be accepted.

Some things disappear and then re-emerge. Take the water cooler. Dagwood Bumstead's office has had one since the 1930s, but in 1984, water coolers were pretty rare, although water fountains could be found. The water cooler has re-emerged in the wake of the bottled water craze, which doesn't appear to be slowing down. Office delivery of bottled water is a thriving business, and Vermont-bottled spring water is eagerly sought.

With all the changes we've seen and the proliferation of wireless communications, is it possible there will come a day when the office will disappear? Robins doesn't think so. "People still like to work together. That's the real world."

Originally published in June 2004 Business People-Vermont