Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Egalitarian Office (sometimes sucks?):

Most offices I work in have a relatively egalitarian environment. You may have no idea what I mean unless you've experienced the typical office of the 1950's and '60s. In those days, important (and even routine) workers handed their work off to be typed, copied and mailed. There was an underclass of support people, mostly women, who also made the coffee, kept things clean, fixed the copiers, set up meeting schedules and so on.

The invention of word processing machines did not bring an end to the era of this underclass. Early word processing machines, whether typewriters or screen-based, were hard to use and required experts in this underclass to operate them.

In the 1970's, winds of social change, and the increasing cost of every support person (caused by rising salaries and benefits, I believe) caused companies to get rid of most of their support people. Inexpensive computers with word processing, spreadasheets and presentation software facilitated his change. Instead, as we routinely find today, people do their own writing, editing, printing, copying, mailing, and even fix copying machines, load paper reams and change toner units. (Making travel arrangements, and setting up meeting schedules are interesting exceptions these days, these still seem to require a lot of expert support.)

My point in bringing all this up, is that I do not fully believe in the egalitarian office. The tendency to treat the “support underlings” as a lower caste was always atrocious; but so is the idea of a busy manager cleaning the coffee machine and making the next pot, which could be done as well or better by a person making one tenth or less of that manager's salary. And there are plenty of people prepared to work such support jobs today, freeing precious people resources in the most overworked jobs. Why is it no longer economical for mid-sized companies to hire more support people?

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