The Past, Present and Future of Work

Comedian Louis C.K. performs a stand-up routine about ‘flying’. In it he admonishes people who have petty complaints about air travel, like: ‘limited leg room’ or ‘runway delays’, by noting their convenient oversight that modern technology has allowed them to ‘miraculously sit on a chair in the sky and fly through the air like a Greek myth’. I too am guilty of taking technology for granted. Whenever my computer ‘crashes’ at work, I turn into a child. When it happened the other day — before a big presentation, I panicked. My mind went into survival mode, and I tried to recall life before technology. I called my father.

In 1980, he worked as a salesman for a manufacturing organization. Every morning, he sat at a desk that had a rotary telephone, a Rolodex and an ashtray, but no computer. Computers had been invented by this time, but having one at work in 1980 would be on par with having a self-driving car today. Like his colleagues, he would begin each day by reading and responding to mail. This consisted of reading someone else’s cursive and then writing out his messages in long-hand. And paper cuts. He would then pass along his messages on scraps of paper to a secretary, who would type out formal letters, and send them by post. My father explains that it was done this way because “only secretaries had typewriters and no one else knew how to type”. From beginning to end, the simple act of written correspondence potentially involved up to four people (including the mail room clerk and the mailman) and could take up to three days. Consider the time and effort saved with current technology: With my email software, I can complete this process in less than 15 minutes without any spelling mistakes, and my use of cursive is strictly confined to signing office birthday cards. In fact, I don’t even need to send messages from my desk at work, as my mobile phone is now the primary tool I use for business correspondence. On most days, I have read and responded to my important emails on the train ride into work.

My father did not start typing his own correspondence until 1992, when he received his first Compaq personal computer at work. He recalls there being a great deal of resistance among colleagues in his office to the notion that people who weren’t secretaries had to prepare their own correspondence. However, initial opposition quickly turned into acceptance once people realized how much easier it was to type and print one’s own letters.

Other than communicating, an important part of my father’s job was to find new leads. As information wasn’t readily available in 1980, he and his colleagues had to go to the library to do this. The library! They would check out the ‘Scott’s Directory’ or the Chamber of Commerce reference book and make note of companies that they thought might be interested in their products. Aside from company names and contact information, facts about the company and the people in charge were scarce. The round trip by car and a page-by-page search could sometimes take hours. He notes though, that this method was a step up from a senior sales role he held in the 1970's in which he and his fellow salesmen were dropped off on a street corner in the morning and told to “get to it”.

I cannot recall the last time I set foot in a library to do research. In fact, I shamefully admit that I have no idea where the closest library to my office might be. Instead, a quick check online allows me to access almost every piece of information that has ever been created and recorded. I can even have documents translated if need be (although not always perfectly). If I want to know whether the CEO of an organization plays guitar, is a passionate baseball fan or is an avid arborist, I can check out Linkedin or Facebook. If I want to read reviews about a specific organization, then I can check Yelp or Google. I can find the contact information of almost anyone in the developed world in less than 30 seconds. Scary, but much more effective when making a cold call than just having a contact name.

Face to face interaction remains important, but this too has changed. A few weeks ago, I held a critical meeting with remote clients without leaving my desk. I needed their feedback on changes we were making to our services. By using ‘Go to Meeting’ (a virtual meeting software), they were able to view my screen and provide feedback to me simultaneously. I was able to relay the changes to our developers and the updates were made in under an hour. In 1980, my father would have needed to take an overnight business trip in order to achieve the same results. For local sales pitches, he would drive to the company’s office to meet prospective clients in person. He recalls several occasions in which bad weather or traffic made him late, forcing him to apologize once he arrived because there was no way to notify them in advance. Despite leaving early as a precaution, he would unavoidably be leaving potential sales commission — his livelihood — to chance. To add to this, new business could be impacted if he didn’t know the answer to a question on the spot while in a meeting. There was no way to communicate with his boss or colleagues remotely, nor was there a way to quickly find the information through other means. Cell phones did not exist.

Today we leave very little to chance. I can use my phone to plan or prepare for almost any unanticipated event. I use it to check the weather before I leave for work. I check train schedules or traffic patterns if I happen to be driving somewhere. And of course I use it to avoid awkward silences in the elevator and to avoid looking alone while standing in a line. It turns out I’m not alone after all though. As of December 2015, the average person (considering all age groups) in the United States checks his or her phone 46 times per day, or 8 billion times per day collectively! And these numbers increase year after year.

It makes we wonder what my son will be writing about in thirty years. How will my work be considered outdated and unproductive?

Perhaps the most obvious outcome will be the elimination of administrative and non-complex work from our work lives altogether. This would arguably allow us to save time and focus on more complex problems. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are two emerging technologies that will help eliminate the back and forth of finalizing a deal or agreeing on a meeting time, as our devices will do it for us. Google has started to use ‘suggested responses’ for its devices and claims that the machine-learning for this software is so effective that it already accounts for 10% of all outgoing replies and can even match the tone of the incoming message correctly. The use of voice and video recognition will also save more of our time. By pointing my cell phone at an object and asking a non-specific question like ‘what is that?’, my device will be able to tell me that ‘it’ is is a standard insurance contract, with no abnormal clauses, thereby eliminating my need to read it thoroughly. And once image recognition becomes mainstream, it won’t be long before we can point our phones at people during a business conference to learn their names, where they work and their backgrounds before deciding whether it’s worth our time to engage in a conversation.

Aside from saving more of our time, current trends show that technology will enable more freedom than workers have today through remote work. A study done by global workplace analytics shows that telecommuting (among non-self-employed workers) has grown by 103% since 2005. If this trend continues, virtually all of our white-collar workforce will be able to work from wherever they want by the time my son is working. Not only will this save money on office rent for employers, but for the average city commuter, telecommuting would be like getting a $3000 annual raise when factoring in average commute times and cost. For other areas of the workforce, enhancements in virtual reality (VR) will make remote work just as viable. By using wearable technology, industries like construction have already started to allow potential buyers to do ‘walk-throughs’ before a single brick is laid. In the healthcare industry, a child in Vancouver will be able to have heart surgery performed by a doctor in Boston, without either of them having to travel. And gone will be the days of awkward Skype meetings, during which the conversational cadence is often disrupted with attendees talking over one another or not talking at all because of our inability to pick up on non-verbal social cues and nuances. VR would immerse us in a quasi-real-life setting and would ultimately remove these barriers.

With more freedom and mobility at work than we have today, I am hopeful that my son will be able to achieve more of a work life balance than his father and grandfather had during their careers. And perhaps with more free time and a growing accessibility to affordable technology, he will be able to turn one of his hobbies into his livelihood. In fact, turning our hobbies into careers may be the logical next step for how we view ‘work’. Today, writers no longer need to rely on funding from a publishing house to sell a book, but instead can publish on demand. Traders can sit in their basements in front of a lap top rather than fight for space on the stock exchange floor. And wood-working enthusiasts can now market, sell and ship their products by themselves at a much lower cost than before. One wonders what people in my father’s generation would have been able to accomplish if they had more time on their hands. They probably would have been happier. But in the spirit of Louis C.K., I’m sure people will continue to find things to complain about in the future, as it is in our nature. Grievances, like insubordinate robot slaves will bring the term ‘first world problem’ to a whole new level. And when my son’s virtual assistant ‘crashes’ in thirty years, I’m sure I’ll get a frantic phone call. And when I do, I’ll have no idea how to fix it, but I’ll give him some perspective by waxing poetic about how hard it was to drive our own cars and wait in line at grocery stores when I was his age — and that if we could manage, so can he. I’m sure I’ll relish the lecture just as much as my father did.