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Work 20 years ago - what can we learn

Some of you are probably old enough (like me) to have been working in a professional environment twenty years ago. Technology and computers were around, but not like they are today, and we were promised that technology and the internet was going to make our lives easier, resulting in us spending less time on work as it removed menial or repetitive tasks. We were also going to have increased flexibility and more life, less work.

I remember that I had just finished up working at an accounting firm, where one of the primary things I had to deal with on a day to day basis was the new GST rules and laws that had been rushed in to be in place for the Sydney Olympics.

In the year 2000 in Australia:

  • We were "Not happy, Jan!" - as someone with a similar name how could I forget this add from the Yellow Pages?

  • We had just survived a Y2K problem that was never really a problem

  • Our whole country pretty much stopped for the Olympics in September

  • We had Fatso the Wombat and Roy & HG (yes, I do think that deserves a separate mention)

  • John Howard was our Prime Minister

  • We had the original Nokia 5110 indestructible brick phones, and a flip phone was really high tech

  • We had memorised most of our family and friend's phone numbers and we spoke to them on the phone, text existed but we barely used it

  • Most of us were using dial up internet (remember the sound?) as broadband was only just starting to be available

  • We were all appalled that petrol had crept in price to be over $1 a litre

  • We had probably all used a camera (like an actual camera with film inside) in the last month

How was work different to how it is now?

In a lot of ways work has not changed for those of us who work in the professional services. Certainly what we do that requires our skill and training and adds value for the client has not changed.

I remember my accounting firm had an internal IT guy and a time recording program, but we kept records of our time using a notepad (like with paper) because it suited the way that we worked (in large chunks of time, not small 6 minute units). We used computers certainly, to type letters or run industry specific software, but we spent far less time looking at computer screens than we do now. We chose what to use computers for, and what should be done by pen and paper.

Most of our communication was by phone call or letter, and if it was urgent you sent a facsimile. Written correspondence was almost always printed and then read before it was sent allowing a further opportunity to get it right. Email existed but not the way it did now. If you weren't at the office then apart from someone calling you (usually on your home phone number) there was really no way for work to reach you. When you went home you left work behind.

Even clients behaved differently. They didn't expect the almost immediate response to their query. On the whole they were busy with their own work and weren't anxiously waiting for a phone call (or these days an email) unless it was actually legitimately urgent. If they called you on the phone and you didn't answer they left a message, they didn't simply call again two minutes later.

Things are different now

That all sounds great, but work was also totally lacking in flexibility in 2000. Some organisations, like Universities and government departments had started to put flexible systems into place but they were the unicorns. If you were a lawyer you were probably commuting to a city centre or larger business district than where you lived and then sitting at a desk from 9am until 5pm (at least), and that is if you weren't attending court or another physical meeting. If you worked locally, didn't have to commute and were able to occasionally duck over to your kid's school to watch them get an award then that was considered 'flexible' and family friendly. If you were caught at work late you didn't get any photos sent to you of your kids, in fact you probably didn't hear anything about them at all until you got home. Your child had probably memorised your work number in case of emergencies, but you didn't often speak to them or hear from them during the day.

We have increased flexibility and an ability to work remotely, but gone are the promises that technology would make our lives easier and help us to spend less time working.

Somewhere along the way technology became the thing we were tied to, a mere replacement for the seat at a desk in an office. We stopped using it when it suited us and started using it because we "had to". We don't have barriers around our work, it follows us everywhere, and even when we take annual leave or sick leave we are still 'checking in' with work.

Go back to deciding how to use technology

Think about how you used technology 20 years ago and how you use it now. Not on the whole (that is overwhelming), but look at each individual thing.

For instance, look at your work email account:

  • Has emailing with your clients improved your client relationships?

  • Has having email on your mobile phone made it easier to work, or made work more difficult for you to get away from?

  • How often are you looking at your emails when you are sitting at your desk (either in an office, at home or wherever), is that an appropriate amount of time, does email deserve that much of your focus?

  • Are you receiving more enjoyable, interesting or positive types of emails than you did say five or ten years ago? If not, why not?

  • Do you avoid your email account sometimes, and if so, why? Is it because the account is stressful? Is it because you have chosen to look at it less?

Once you have answered these how, what and why type questions ask yourself what you can do to regain control of that method of technology and use it for your benefit. If you are my age you once did your job with almost no email. You do not 'need' email, or at least you do not need it as much as you are currently using it. So use it for your benefit.

As some examples, think about some changes you could make like:

  • Should you go back to speaking to your clients more on the phone, or have a coffee or a Zoom conference with them?

  • Should you take your work emails off of your mobile phone, or have a device (like your tablet) that is the only device you use to check work emails?

  • Should you have times of the day when you check email, and times of the day set aside for uninterrupted work.

  • Do you like the emails you are receiving, at least some of them? If not, subscribe to something you like, or send a positive email to a friend.

  • Is your email account fundamentally stressful and if so, why has it become like that? Is your work implicitly stressful? If it is, what can you address to reduce that stress? Do you need to talk to someone about that?

Technology should work for you, not against you

Not all remote communication and technology is bad. You can use all of this to do what we were initially promised 20 years ago, reducing the amount of time it takes you to do your work and increasing the flexibility. You can use technology to work at the hours that you want, and in the places that you want to work. You can use technology to take care of frustrating work, work that is not value added, and focus instead on getting back to the basics of why you do your job and how you add value for your clients.

You need to remember though that you use technology, not the other way around. Revisit your usage habits, get control of them, and then ask yourself how you can use your technology to do your job better, or faster, or in a more friendly and collaborative fashion.


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Our client intake questionnaire is customisable, you can send all of the information to a client who you know can cope with a lot of 'homework', or you can send some of the information to a different client who can only cope with giving you the basic details and then send them some more 'homework' later.

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