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Law of Unintended Consequences Rules the High-Tech Office

Productivity-enhancing equipment has a way of changing people's roles and jobs--as well as making it difficult to keep a secret.


Sometimes, technology does exactly the opposite of what is expected of it. The "paperless office" has been a gleam in technologists' eyes for decades now. But since the advent of the personal computer, office paper purchases have surged from 4.4 million tons in 1980 to 7.3 million tons last year.

Without question, the computer and the Internet have enabled people to distribute billions of documents digitally. But for various reasons many people still prefer holding a hard piece of paper in their hands. The Net and PCs have just given us access to so much more material--Web pages, for instance--worth printing.

Technology is often credited with having a democratizing affect on the office, which is true for several reasons. It is common in many corporations, for instance, for even low-level employees to know the e-mail address of top executives, making it at least theoretically easier to reach them with complaints or suggestions.

But the fact that corporate chiefs even have e-mail addresses, and bother to check them, also underscores how technology has compelled many high-ranking corporate officials to handle correspondence and other tasks that were formerly the exclusive province of secretaries and assistants.

This has been enlightening to executives and, in some instances, embarrassing.

Judy McCoy, a lifelong secretary in Bellingham, Wash., said before the advent of e-mail, she was responsible for typing all of her bosses' correspondence.

That includes what she called "hot letters"--reprimands or angry responses her bosses would sometimes dictate to her in haste. Often, she would type the letter as dictated but give her boss a few hours to cool off. Invariably, she would persuade her boss to compose a new letter in calmer tones.

But e-mail "doesn't give you that cooling-down period," she says. And she has never forgotten an episode that took place several years ago, while she was working at a university. One senior official wrote scathing remarks about another, then accidentally addressed the e-mail to the target of his tirade.

Another consequence of placing technology in everyone's hands is that it often distracts people from their true talents. Tenner argues that rather than boosting productivity in offices, computers have turned everyone into part-time tech consultants.

Workers who used to focus on one task and executives who concentrated exclusively on matters of strategy now find themselves dealing with cables, interface cards and networking software.

Tenner chuckles recalling a newspaper article that described University of Chicago physicist Leon Lederman spending an entire afternoon crawling under tables and around corners trying to find which office printer was connected to his new computer.

"Here was the discoverer of the bottom quark and the muon neutrino," the article said, "being paid to locate a 38-pound laser printer."

But for all the travails of modern technology, few office workers would choose to go back in time.

Donna Baker, an executive assistant at Idealab Inc. in Pasadena, remembers the meager equipment she was provided with when she became a secretary after graduating from high school 30 years ago.

"I had an IBM Selectric typewriter," said Baker, 47. "It had correction tape on it and it was like the wave of the future."

Thanks to technology, she said, she now spends the bulk of her time doing more rewarding work, such as using spreadsheets to map out budget scenarios, preparing meeting presentations and using the Internet to gather information on suppliers, customers and competitors.

"Long gone are the days for secretaries when you used to get your boss coffee," she said. "Now it's almost like I get to run the organization without the responsibility."

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