New Technologies in the Workplace:
Approaching the Virtual Office

Natalie Zee
LIS 296A

NOTICE

"Picture this. The year is 2010. A man is getting dressed for work. He glances outside from the bedroom window. It's a beautiful spring day today, so he decides to work outside in the backyard. The DX 2000 portable office (in the physical resemblance to our laptop computers) is on the table next to the morning cup of coffee. He turns on the power switch. 'Ahh, ' he thinks to himself, '...just another day at the office."

Click. It was only the television with yet another one of those futuristic ads proposing what life and work will be like during the Information Age. Scenarios like these, where a worker can choose to work from anyplace they want, away from the physical constraints of an office are just one of the many aspects of this new technology being touted along with the "Information Superhighway". You may recall the recent AT&T television "You Will" commercials that show a man barefoot, dressed in khaki's, and in some tropical location having a video conference "meeting" with his co-workers over his laptop computer. Media hype is bringing America false hopes, generating ideas in thought that all of society will barely have to lift a finger to do work, because computers and technology will make life easier.

In reality, we still haven't quite reached the exotic, leisurely, dream vacation/work settings yet. But, presently technology is finding its part in creating new organizational methods for the office. Across the country, computer-mediated communications networks, from the simple electronic mail services to the high-tech videoconferencing systems, are being used by workers and implemented by management to create a different way to conduct business. It is allowing for workers to communicate worldwide and have access to tons of information all from their computer. This type of technology breaks all time and space barriers for conducting business, and many say that it is really just the first step in the global implementation of the "Virtual Office". The virtual office is part of the minimalist mentality of the nineties, where in limited physical office space, workers work at any available desk or cubicle. These offices are "smart", equip with the computer networks that organized appointments, as well delegating your cubicle for the day. These office systems take into accordance that the majority of the workers are either at home, or out on the town visiting clients or customers. Tests have been conducted at such corporations as IBM, Bell Atlantic, and other local businesses around San Francisco and Silicon Valley. But will this trend in technology really be worth it in the end for the individual worker/average citizen?

The purpose of this paper is to explore two things. First, to look at the various impacts present computer networks have over workers and the workplace. By examining how workers interact via computer-mediated communications as opposed to face-to-face contact, I will investigate whether this technology will really bring us the social democracy that will eliminate social hierarchies. I will also seek to discover if indeed computer networks tend to isolate workers and its affect on employee moral and health issues. This will be done by comparing various studies and research done by social psychologists with examples from present day "telecommuters" and "virtual office" experiments. Secondly, I shall bring to light major concerns over the aspects of corporations using technology in the workplace as a means to gain and uphold global monopolization. Also, I shall bring in aspects of how this technology has shaped presently the physical structures of workplaces through actual "virtual office" test experiments and implementations. Can this in fact really be a money making plot for corporations to cut costs and expand globally at the same time? As business corporations and management are presently making all the rules that will determine the future of our daily lives, these issues presented here will dispel the media and corporate hype to uncover the true meaning of its effects on our future society.

For the average person, the office is not only a place for work, but it is also a social meeting place where one meets co-workers, friends, clients, and customers.[1] It becomes a primary place where an employee will spend most of his/her time. Some even can say that a majority of a person's lifetime is spent in the workplace. Yet, with the emergence of computer networks in the workplace, computer-mediated communications has changed all this. There is a complete breakdown of factors such as time and space. It has become the preferred medium over the telephone and postal service for its quick, efficient, time and cost saving manner.[2] Employees utilizing electronic mail, real-time conferencing, and bulletin boards have found that this technology is increasingly bringing about a globalized linked network for conducting business. These "virtual workers" can be in Hong Kong, London, or San Francisco. It doesn't really matter how far away or close they are.

Exploring the social aspects of computer-mediated communications in work, Lee Sproull and Sara Keisler did a study in 1991 on electronic interactions vs. face-to-face. Sproull and Keisler state that:

"Networks create a web of social connections that stretch across time and that exist independently of an employee's physical location or hierarchical position. Because of the lack of social cues, people communicating electronically tend to talk more freely than they would in person."[3]

Yet different from face-to-face conversation, computer communication results in the "depersonalization" of the person sending the message.[4] In turn, the person reading computer e-mail messages is more impulsive and assertive in their responses. Called "flaming"--this type of uninhibited speech (i.e. swearing, insulting, profanities, etc.) occurs more often than in face-to-face conversations.[5] What is ultimately lost though is the visual cues of facial expressions or body language that is part of the visual element in communicating with others.

What effect will this type of speech have on the workplace? Well, in group task situations where workers will produce proposals, documents, or organize meetings, using computer networks uninhibited speech was found to influence the total amount of group productivity. The more that groups exhibited uninhibited speech, the less productive they were in terms of overall decision making.[6] There is an overwhelming feeling of independence among individual group worker conducting business online. Through this independent atmosphere, it becomes easier to hold out on one's own opinions and decisions rather than conforming to the majority group opinion.[7] Three to four person work groups in the study took almost four times as long to reach a decision using the computer rather than face-to-face contact.[8] It was found at IBM, when it started implementing its e-mail system, VNET, employees began using the system as a medium to converse and complain about IBM's management.[9] These types of seemingly anonymous speech whereby an individual feels more like he/she is conversing with a machine rather than a person, takes work time away from their assigned tasks. Yet, it is interesting how workers used the medium to band together in a virtual community of sorts in order to vent their frustrations about their work environment. But IBM management changed all this and accordingly created new polices that deterred employees from engaging useless chatter.[10]

These uninhibited feelings among workers also transcends from the fact that there is supposedly a diminished sense of social hierarchies. In a study by Dubrovsky, Kiesler, and Sethna in 1991, they found that in fact-to-face meetings and conversations, the group member with the higher-status in the workplace tended to dominate over the rest of the group.[11] This is also reinforced through the physical office environment. For example, an employee's clothes, office location and size, physical appearance, and other social behavior can have an affect to actually regulate communications and limit it.[12] Some face-to-face scenarios involve the office "conference room" atmosphere where higher executives will dominate themselves by residing at the head of the table in their large leather chairs. The researchers claim that this type of organizational conflicts where decisions and opinions may be held back may lead to disasters. For example, in the airline industry fatal air crashes could have been avoided if other crew members had only spoken up against and/or contradicted the captain.[13]

An "equalization phenomenon" is said to occur when workers make decisions via e-mail or over real-time computer conferences. Inferred from this research, it seems the uninhibited speech that derives from computer networks allow workers of lower office status or ones who tend to be more shy in expressing their opinions, to actually be more open than before. This may be due to less evaluation anxiety among workers and increased individual responsibility to contribute to the work involved. Shoshana Zuboff in her documentation of one firm's social behavior change in regards to the implementation of computer networks, described people who tended to see themselves as unattractive, soft spoken, or shy, had the outcome of having the highest self-esteem and enabled them to be taken more seriously.[14] But on the other hand, these social hierarchies are not completely wiped away. There are still higher-level executives, who do receive more pay than other employees. This is not taking into account monitoring systems created by management to observe what other employees are doing. It is this same hierarchy that implemented the policies at IBM to prevent employees from using VNET as a democratic place to voice opinions about the management. The hierarchies are invisible "Big Brothers."

Some optimists say that these type of results seem to point in the direction that computer-mediated communication will become a stepping stone for women employees to gain greater prominence in the workplace. Yet, other technological barriers seem to indicate that women are still under represented when it comes to communicating on-line through computer networks and in general feeling comfortable using the technology.[15] Unfortunately, there has been no substantial research on the positive effects of computer-mediated communications relating to gender and work.

Nonetheless, there is substantial findings, that prolonged work with computers creates various physical symptoms in workers such as eye strain, deteriorated vision, as well as headaches, back problems, insomnia, and greater anxiety and depression.[16] Most of these are in fact due to VDT's, video display terminals, in which there is also some evidence of increased risk in pregnant women having miscarriages.[17] Also related to health issues, is the fact that a person's biorhythms, the natural inner rhythms that regulate heartbeat, respiration, and brain-wave patterns are somewhat altered when working with computers for large amounts of time.[18]

Keeping these social individual aspects in mind, I will focus the attention to another growing aspect of technology. Telecommuting--where workers will be able to work at home, is being proclaimed by the media and big business as having benefits for both women and men who can now combine with work with domestic duties. Especially for married couples with young children, telecommuting is hypothesized as a way to spend time caring for your children while also on the other hand, being able to make money working.[19] There are some positive social effects for telecomuters which include greater satisfaction of working conditions, and less interruptions/less demands from other co-workers,[20] Take for instance a test done by Bellcore (Bell Communications Research) in Summit, New Jersey last year. Engineer David LaPier worked 3 days of the week in an "office" he set up in the laundry room of his house, and only traveled physically to work the other three days.[21] With a special program he would work on-line with another co-worker located at the office.[22] LaPier is an example of the growing number of couples who think that telecommutingwill enable them to have the best of both worlds of home and office in one. He and his wife jointly trade off work at home in order to care for their two small children. Family is the biggest reason workers choose to telecommute.

Moving to another perspective, that of a corporation, we see that telecommuting and all this new technology for the "virtual office" is seen with much bigger things in mind. In an article for "The Futurist" magazine, Bell Atlantic's CEO Raymond Smith wrote about his company's reason for allowing his 16,000 employees the option of telecommuting.[23] His article seems targeted at assuaging society that despite cuts in the workforce among telecommunication giants in this nation, what technology is allowing is "the fundamental improvement in the individual's role in the workplace" and it will give workers unlimited "personal freedom, creativity, initiative, talent, and skill."[24] He praises his telecommuters for their productivity adding that "already despite a reduction in office hours...two of our telecommuters were promoted."[25] All this may sound too good to be true and it probably is. Smith completely omits in his article the number of non-telecommuters who are regularly promoted, and for that matter the actual overall number of telecommuters that work for Bell Atlantic. It is impossible to ignore the stammering results that have been over the business pages in the recent months. Just in January of this year, major telecommunications corporations such as Nynex, GTE, and Pacific Telesis were admitting cuts in the workforce where almost 45,000 jobs combined will be terminated by the next three years or less.[26] Telecommuting may mean less stability in jobs for workers and more power to the corporations.

As always businesses strive for the highest profit margin. In present examples of "virtual offices" the picture does not paint a pretty future. Already at IBM, workers are working in anonymous numbered cubbyholes that are free from privacy and lack personal identity. [27] Moving to a confined warehouse office structure, away from the previous 400,000 square foot luxurious office with glorious picturesque views through the windows, workers now can see each other working at their laptops and glancing up to see the unbeatable view of the heating and air conditioning duct.[28] General Manager Duke Mitchell said it best, "No walls, no boundaries, no compartments, no hierarchies, no epaulets. You're here because of your competence and there's no frills."[29] Will this type of atmosphere really make individuals feel more equal? Somehow it is more reminiscent of Fordist ideology of his mass production scheme that essentially classified the Industrial Revolution.

Lee Jackson, Jr. is just one of the researchers who believe that this new technology shaping the business world is one that will have negative repercussions over society. He discusses that telecommuting actually let employers gain higher control over their workers by reducing them to part-time status with no benefits and/or by paying them by piece rate.[30] Jackson claims the "optimistic prophecies about telecommuting" omits the major fact that from work derives important social relationships and "electronic cottage" work will physically isolate workers.[31] More importantly he reminds society that technological advances usually proceed without any social concerns, and that everything resulting may not be in our favor.

Cutting costs, creating cubicles for one of every three employees, San Francisco based firm of Ernst & Young has saved itself major dollars in unnecessary office space.[32] With lockers to put their personal belongings instead of their own offices, it is not surprising that the "[Apple] Powerbook has turned into their whole [professional] identity...its their whole home. They carry it around with them."[33] People tend to need physical things and familiar surroundings to identify with. Just like local baseball or football teams that bond a city together in a community atmosphere, offices as they are becoming de-structured are losing that social/physical community aspect. Workers look to their laptop computers to fill that void. It becomes their principle motivating factor. Individuals are clutching their Powerbooks because its the only tangible thing that actually associates them with having a job. It's the only familiar constant thing in which they have control over content, since their office space is regulated and changes upon any given day.

Is all of this progress? What are we doing to ourselves and our autonomy? Professors Andrew Gillespie and Kevin Robins in their study claim that:

"Contrary to popular predictions of their decentralizing impact, digital communications contribute to new and more complex forms of corporate integration, reinforcing center-periphery problems on a global scale."[34]

What this means is that because of our new technology, it will erase all sense of time and space, and geographically we will no longer matter. An envisioned "third wave" society will emerge, where "one of decentralized communities...with the fundamental social unit being the electronic cottage...[these] new technologies of communication will permit an ever-increasing number of social activities to be undertaken in the home."[35] Therefore, corporations who have jumped the information bandwagon will have control over a larger marketplace that spans globally. These "new spatial monopolies" will more than likely "increase centralization, and provide more wealth to the already wealthybenefit[ing] the resource-rich (large corporations and government)" while the resource-poor small businesses will ultimately suffer.[36] Larger businesses have larger pocketbooks and therefore have a greater influence on the whole of the development of networks and services for the global economy. In the end, the only people able to work in exotic locations may just be the CEOs of corporations while the rest of society toils in the shadows of the Information Age.

In conclusion, most of these technologies are still being tested for effective usage in the organizational processes of business. Yet, it is difficult to ignore the enormous social costs deriving from the adaptation of a "virtual office" which will not make our lives easier as technology is supposed to. Will work one day be done completely by computers? Only then will we have too much leisure time on our hands. Computer-mediated communications, outside of control and regulation can bring people together. It is when it becomes monitored that it loses the aspects of community and becomes a revival of the Industrial Era that will not allow society to progress ahead.


[1]Sproull, Lee, and Sara Keisler, "Computers, Networks, and Work", p,116.

[2]Ibid, p.116.

[3]Ibid.,p.116.

[4]Smolensky, Mark and Meghan Carmody, et.al., "The Influence of Task Type, Group Structure and Extroversion on Uninhibited Speech.....", p.262

[5]Ibid., p.263.

[6]Ibid., p.269.

[7]Smilowitz, Michael, and D. Chad Compton, et. al., "The Effects of CMC on Individual's Judgement," p.312.

[8]Sproull, Lee, and Sara Keisler, "Computers, Networks, and Work," p.119.

[9]Smolensky, Mark, and Meghan Carmody, et. al., "The Influence of Task Type, Group Structure, and Extroversion...," p.263.

[10]ibid., p.263.

[11]Dubrovsky, Vitaly, and Sara Kiesler, et.al, "The Equalization Phenomenon: Status Effects in CMC and Face-to-Face Communications," p.119.

[12]Ibid., p.121.

[13]Ibid., p.122.

[14]Sproull, Lee, and Sara Keisler, "Computers, Networks, and Work," p.120

[15]Perry, Ruth, and Lisa Greber, "Women and Computers: An Introduction," p.76-77

[16]Ibid., p.79.

[17]Ibid., p.79.

[18]Brod, Craig, Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution, p.213.

[19]Kraut, Robert, "Telecommuting: The Trade-Offs of Home Work," p.20.

[20]Ibid., p.38

[21]Race, Tim, "Testing the Telecommute," New York Times, August 8, 1993

[22]Ibid.

[23]Smith, Raymond, "Bell Atlantic's Virtual Work Force," The Futurist, p.13

[24]Ibid.

[25]Ibid.

[26]Ramirez, Anthony, "Nynex to Cut 22% of Work Force," New York Times, January 25, 1994.

[27]Johnson, Kirk, "At IBM, Desk Sharing and No Frills," New York Times, March 14, 1994.

[28]Ibid.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Jackson, Jr., Lee, "Computers and the Social Psychology of Work," p.257.

[31]Ibid., p.257.

[32]Marshall, Jonathan, "Eliminating the Permanent Office," San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 1994.

[33]Ibid.

[34]Gillespie, Andrew, and Kevin Robins, "Geographical Inequalities: The Spatial Bias of the New Communications Technologies", p.7.

[35]Ibid., p.8.

[36]Rubinyi, Robert, "Computers and Community: The Organizational Impact," p.113.


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