My first “real job” was in 1985. I was 20 years old and working as the receptionist for a New York City publishing house. My desk was in the front of the suite of offices just before the elevators. To the right of my desk was an IBM Selectric typewriter but my desk itself was clear save for some filing and a pad for messages.
I prided myself on my neat handwriting, one of the things that helped me to land the job, and I manually wrote message after message onto the pad. Every now and then I would get up and deliver messages to their respective parties. That’s how we rolled back then.
Back in the day…
If a letter or memo was required, I’d turn on the electric typewriter, the height of typewriter technology in the ’80s, and type. If I made a mistake, I’d dab the offending letter with “white out” or backspace to use the erasing tape. If I made too many mistakes I’d have to trash the correspondence to start over again. Though I was a good typist, about 75 WPM, I dreaded reports. Even back then, typos were the bane of my existence.
This was an exciting time for my company, however. Little by little they were upgrading to computers. Big, fat, bulky computers. First to benefit were the art departments who no longer had to do paste ups. Second, were the typesetters who were so happy not to use clunky keys. They were followed by the accounting, subscription and sales and circulation departments.
In 1993 I was still in publishing, but I now worked for a graphic design studio that packaged magazines for the same publishing company I just left. I learned how to use a Mac and even finally bought one for my home. I was an administrative and editorial assistant at that time, and though I still typed a few things out on the company Selectric, having a computer at my desk made life so much more convenient and interesting.
Do you know what made things even more convenient and interesting?
None of the places I worked with were connected until the mid ’90s. Before then:
- We spoke on the phone more often – We didn’t have email or Skype. We used the phone to keep in touch with customer and clients. We also had internal extensions to keep in touch with our co-workers. Every day, first thing in the morning, we listened to our voice mail or retrieved messages from the receptionist (before voice mail) and spent an hour or two getting back to people.
- Very few places had telecommute options – Though I took home some paper copies of magazines to proofread or brought home the occasional file to go over, these more or less fell under the umbrella of “working late.” Not so many of companies had telecommute options for employees because it difficult to share files, correspondence, etc.
- We networked offline – If we wanted to bring in new business or get hired, we attended networking events. Many of these events cost big money and required us to get into the power suits and shake a lot of hands, but we felt it worth the investment if it helped to boost our careers.
- We relied on snail mail – When we had to get it in writing we would send a snail mail. This meant it could take several days to get someone a payment or contract. We did sometimes overnight stuff, but it cost money and had to be of the utmost importance. We also faxed stuff, but most documents requiring an original signature had to be sent via mail. We wrote real actual letters on real actual heavy company stationery.
- We cared more about sales than customers – Before the Internet, and specially social media came around and made it all about people, businesses didn’t care so much. Oh they said they did, but truthfully, most businesses didn’t really hold themselves accountable for poor customer service. In the 80′s and even 90′s when folks called a company it was unlikely they would reach a real, live voice. Most businesses had automated menus requiring the caller to eventually leave a message, and maybe they would receive a call back. It was easier to ignore a voice mail message, and snail mail sat stacked up on our desks, waiting for a response. I don’t even want to describe the editorial slush pile in my boss’ office.
- We used telephones and mail order – If we needed office supplies or anything else, we filled out a catalog form and mailed it away. If we needed it quicker, we called on the phone. Shopping was really shopping, we didn’t order anything online.
- We received a physical paycheck and had to wait three days from deposit for it to clear: Direct deposit didn’t come until the mid 90s, at least for me. We had to wait for our paychecks to be delivered from the payroll company. If there was a glitch in the overnight courier, or a bad storm or anything that kept the delivery people from delivering, we had to go the weekend without being paid. There was no paypal or anything instant. We knew what our banking people looked like and even spoke to many of them by name.
- We were local, not global: Freelancers and consultants looking for work did so within their own areas. There were no international job board and it was unheard of for someone in New York to consult for someone in California.
- We were less distracted: With no Internet, we were better able to focus on the job at hand. Multitasking wasn’t part of our vocabulary and anyone who maintained several tasks at once was thought to be a little disorganized and unfocused.
- We wasted a lot of paper: The amount of paper wasted all day was really quite appalling . We made extra copies of everything, no matter how unnecessary. We typed and if we goofed, we started again. There was no email, no Skype, no electronic messaging. We used faxes and paper memos to communicate interoffice.
- We didn’t outsource as much: Most of the work was done in house. It’s just easier to communicate with the people who work in the office than to hire someone somewhere else and have to correspond by phone or snail mail each day. We did have a few people who freelanced and we’d send work via messenger, but that was expensive and we made only a few exceptions.
- The office timesucks were coffee breaks, the water cooler and computer solitaire: Without the Internet we stayed focused on our work. We did have a few time sucks, for example the solitaire that came as part of our computers. We also talked around the water cooler. Some workers spent amazing amounts of time on the phone with personal calls, but for the most part we were focused on our work.
- We used telephone and zip code directories: If we needed to find a number we had to use the Yellow or White Pages and if we had to mail something and we didn’t know the zip code, we had to use the directory. We used dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as the library to do our research.
- When we ended the day, we ended the day: When work was done, we went home. We might take a file home to review in the evening, but we didn’t have our home and work computers synced. Office emails and business waited until the next day when we went back to work.
- We left our desks at lunch time: We didn’t spend lunch hours surfing the Internet and updating Facebook. We went out. We went for walks, we had lunch and sometimes we even went to see a movie. During inclement weather we might order in, and sometimes we read newspapers at our desks. Mostly we went outside and enjoyed each others’ company.
- We were original: Our writing was our own. We didn’t copy everyone else’s work out of magazines or off memos. We had to research and write our own stuff and if we copied other people or rehashed someone else’s work we were called out on it.
- We learned stuff on our own: There were no bloggers, experts or gurus teaching us stuff online. We had to take classes and learn everything on our own. And we had to pay for it too!
- We used the newspaper or pounded the pavement to find work: When it came time to look for work we looked in the help wanted ads, walked from business to business handing out resumes and sometimes received referrals from friends or co-workers.
Things have changed a lot in the 25 years I’ve been working. Some are changes for the better, some things I miss. I often wonder if we had a better work ethic back before the Internet, but I like that people come first now. Progress and technology are never a bad thing.
What are some of the way things have changed between the time you started first working and now?