The Evolution of Technology in the Workplace

Phil Kotacka

In the mid to late '90s, I had an opportunity to witness firsthand a monumental shift in what would soon become the office place of the 21st century—the introduction of technology in the workplace.

Back then, we all had physical inboxes, paper filing systems and a mail boy whose sole purpose was to physically collect and deliver mail, memos and documents with attachments, which required a physical paperclip. The only virus that was ever spread back then was a debilitating case of the sniffles.

While e-mail was used in other departments, the company I was working for at the time made a strategic decision to bring everyone on board. Our department was about to get its first taste of doing business in the 21st century. The only problem of course, was that everyone was working with a 20th century mentality, and frankly lacked the maturity to use this new technology responsibly.

Suddenly employee productivity was shot as people were using e-mail for personal use, sending obscene attachments to the entire corporate mailing list and spreading debilitating viruses of the electronic kind.

In the early months, managers and senior leaders cursed this new technology because it was consuming valuable productivity time. Employees were now busy chattering with one another electronically, often sending nonsensical messages with promises of great luck if you send your e-mail to x number of people. Not to mention the compromising pictures of colleagues and managers from the company Holiday party that would end up circulating the office in digital space. Whether it was a picture, attachment or corporate rumor, once it was out there, it was almost impossible to contain it.

Fast forward to today. E-mail is no longer the bane of the business world’s existence. As a matter of fact, most people will ask, "What did we do before e-mail?" The truth is we did business much as we do today, only now technology allows us to do it more efficiently and at a lightning pace. Technology has become an invaluable and indispensable tool, allowing people to share and acquire information with great ease and low cost.

Organizations have matured with e-mail and net usage by adopting sound policies and practices that make the most of this technology. In the early days of e-mail, these policies were not always effective because organizations in the '90s could not foresee how people would be using—or for that matter abusing—a technology that was new at the time. It was mostly through trial and error, the advent of new monitoring software and, I would argue, an economic downturn of the 2000-2001 period that snapped organizations and employees in to line. If you are working in lean times with the threat of being laid off and all of your online activities are monitored, you can bet that everyone will become compliant. Sure, even today we all receive "those e-mails" from a select few in the office, but nowadays questionable content will usually go straight in to the recycling bin. People and organizations (for the most part) have matured.

Enter social networking sites and apps that are part of the Web 2.0 world and we find striking parallels with the early days of e-mail.

Here we see the advent of another form of communication technology that has fantastic potential coupled with people’s apparent immaturity and misuse of it. In the few years since social networking sites have seen widespread use, political candidates have been tarred by revealing photos, relationships have been exposed and delinquent employees not showing up for work have been busted! Is this what social networking sites were intended for?

No one knows, but one thing is for sure: Social networking provides a fantastic platform to connect with people and share information and most of all, keep current with everyone’s activities. While e-mail remains the primary tool for connecting with people, it has become a proxy for detailed communication exchanges and requests for follow up. On the other hand, social networking allows for quick hit information bytes and gives you the ability to source information and people through a network of contacts with rapid turnaround. In other words, if I need an information resource, or human resource for that matter, I can put it out there to various groups and people in my network, and chances are pretty good that I’ll find what I’m looking for—within the hour!

The advantage is that people in my network and like-minded individuals I share discussions with in various forums are all localised on one technology platform.

So what’s the problem?

Well, we’re all still quite new to this. I find that social networking sites such as Facebook have become simply painful to keep up with. People I barely know are "poking me" or getting me "virtual martinis," not to mention posting long lost pictures of me I don’t necessarily approve of. All of this is reminiscent of when e-mail was like the Wild West: It was new and fun, but it's beginning to get a little out of hand.

Now we get in to the workplace, and if you’re lucky enough to access a social networking site through your firewall, you’ll find some managers giving you the evil eye if they happen to catch you in the act of using it. Fear of productivity loss, employee distraction and the dissemination inappropriate content on company servers are justified. Of course there are some pretty sound organizational policies in some companies governing employees' use, but as I’ve observed, there still are many reservations about employees' use of social networking sites while on the job.

Employees increased usage of social networking sites along with sound organizational policies and technologies with the added economic downturn that we’re currently experiencing will act as a "corrective" behavior will help align all parties concerned.

My take is that companies should not be afraid to embracing social networking sites. In a new business reality where budgets are drastically reduced but companies and teams are still global, social networking offers a cost effective tool with the potential of keeping team connected and management in the loop. Once the economic storm subsides, the companies that have embraced this technology–even with its present day flaws, stand to be more competitive, productive and come out on top.