From the typewriter to today: A history of the workplace

When the first typewriters went on sale in the late 1800s, no one could have anticipated the changes to the workplace that this new technology would bring. And although the typewriter may be perceived to be a very basic idea compared to products available in the market today, its impact on business over the past 100 years can provide some very strong insights into how new technologies are changing the workspace in 2015.

Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and VP of Intel Labs, explains how that even our modern day laptops still look remarkably like typewriters in many respects – in that they have a keyboard and a front-facing view of what you are writing. But beyond the innovative design aspects, which for the first time allowed people to quickly convey ideas down on paper, the typewriter had a much broader impact on the layout of offices, the creation of new job roles and the types of people entering employment.

“We know that workplace transformation and technology have this really tightly linked and intimate relationship. But technology doesn’t do it alone and it doesn’t solely contribute to it,” explains Bell.

“All that machinery in 19th century, the stuff that was in the back rooms, required different types of spaces. You needed to have rooms for filing paper, you needed places to put binders, you needed to have different types of desks to put typewriters on. So the typewriter and the tools like it rearranged spaces – think about the offices you work in now, they owe some of their legacy to this moment in time.”

Bell uses the example of how today the pervasive access to wireless broadband has too rearranged and changed the way that we work. Wi-Fi and 4G don’t just let us connect to the internet without cables, they allows us to carry the office around with us. We no longer have to be sitting at a desk to be efficient in our jobs; our work is portable.

And as was the case with the introduction of the typewriter, we are again moving into another period of restructuring what our offices look like.

Equally, typewriters and the technologies that emerged in the late 19th century also created new types of work. Bell explains that most of the work up until this point had been clerical – if you weren’t running a machine, your job involved a variety of different tasks.

“By the time typewriters turned up, you began to see very specific roles emerge – stenography, typists, clerks. And new kinds of work was created for those people and by those people. And whole new sets of measures for productivity emerged too, you can think of this is KPIs version 1.0,” she says.

“There was a speeding up of the work, the notion of how fast you could do things became a metric of whether you were doing things effectively or not. It wasn’t about your character, it was about how quickly you could perform a task,” Bell adds.

“Again, new technologies are going to create new categories of jobs – a few years ago not many people would have heard of the job title data scientist, or social media expert. These are now prevalent.”

But beyond the physical workplace itself, the introduction of technologies in the typewriter-era also had a direct impact on the people that entered the workplace. For example, Bell highlights, for the first time in the USA and the UK, women were brought into the workforce in huge numbers and trained as typists.

This trend, alongside the introduction of legislation that required basic levels of education in the western world, meant that the workplace diversified intensely. And again, we find today that we are going through a similar shift in demographics that will change the way that businesses look over the next decade.

“So you’ve got a population that are educated, a set of people that are now in the labour force that wouldn’t have been in the labour force previously and you have a whole new set of jobs that emerge,” Bell explains.

“And of course when we think about the workforce of the early 21st century, we know there are similar challenges. We are facing this really interesting demographic moment where there are five generations of people in the workforce. That means that the workforce is going to include people that we would normally have seen retiring, as well as include millennials. We have this diversification by age.”

The diversification of the workforce in the late 19th century and in the decades that followed also had a huge ripple effect on other industries and brought a number of unintended consequences. For example, more people with more money to spend meant that the entertainment industry grew. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this was also a driving force behind the emergence of department stores. Equally, the sudden need to get huge swathes of people into offices in cities meant that there were large investments in infrastructure and transport. Trade unions emerged. Bell asks, what will the consequences of technology today be?

“Think about the consequences of 21st century transformations. We are having very different conversations in 2015 than we were having ten years ago about things like data and privacy and security. And ideas about work/life boundaries have changed. Ideas about the sharing economy,” she says.

“Nearly 120 years after the first typewriter we are sitting inside a new set of transformations. We know that there are technologies that we have lived with over the past 20 years that have not only shaped work, but the world outside of work too. And I think we are sitting in this really interesting moment where we ask, what is the relationship between these things? What are the possibilities now?

“How do we pay attention to the fact that it’s the really little things that make the biggest difference? Typewriters were never that big, but they brought these extraordinary transformations. What is it that will do what the typewriter did and change everything?”

More from Intel:

– How to boost collaboration and productivity regardless of where your employees are

– Everything you need to know about wireless infrastructure implementation

– The ultimate guide to modern collaborative technologies

Image source: Shutterstock

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