for release April 19, 2002
by Melodie Davis
The Secretary-less Office
It all started with having to get your own coffee.
Then computers, word processors and email completed the transformation to the almost-secretary-less office. Voice-mail has replaced the need for receptionists and email has reduced the need for real letters (and secretaries to make sure the envelopes look right).
I've been a secretary. I started my first real job out of college as a secretary. I should explain that I never had to get anyone but myself coffee at my office and gradually got to the place where I had my own secretary about half time. It was great.
Then the superhighway revolution happened and somehow I am back to square one. I am my own secretary again. My files are in a shambles.
This is not just a tongue-n-cheek pity party for me. (And don't wonder if I've ever done a real day's work in my life: I've put in a summer in a shirt factory, two summers as a waitress, washing dishes in the school cafeteria, catching chickens, cleaning houses-enough time that I desired to get to the place where I could do a job sitting down.)
But I'm wondering if everyone is aware of this change in our business culture that probably cuts across every office in North American society. Oh sure, there still are secretaries, but I would suspect they are found mostly in the upper echelons of offices. Any smaller office or business has executive directors collating newsletters and sending out mailings. Certainly we all do most of our own correspondence, phone answering, setting up meetings, taking minutes.
Since I work for a non-profit, I would guess that is especially true. Over the years as inflation continues, budgets get tighter, and staffs are trimmed - a half person there, a half person there, or in a really bad year, whole departments. Again, this may be good: staffing is usually the single biggest expense in the budgets of most nonprofits. Sometimes staffing is way too fat. But here at my office, I don't see how we can get much leaner, clerically. There are simply tons of things that don't get done anymore because no one has the time.
Maybe these are things that never should have been done in the first place. Sometimes. But I have a feeling that what is going to suffer is the work of future researchers, historians, archeologists. What does it mean for a business, place or institution to have little or no history?
Sometimes history doesn't matter. Witness the rapid rise and fall of many dot-com companies. I betcha there weren't very many secretaries in any of the now defunct dot-coms, and there is now very little history of those organizations, except for what stories might have been done in the media. When all of your work is done on the Internet, who makes paper copies of pages and pages of Internet data that changes daily? Maybe no one cares if the company was truly fly by night.
If you want an organization that is more than fly by night, that will be around 25, 50 and 100 years from now, I submit that it needs some system of keeping records, and usually, the only people who have time to do the kind of recording keeping that creates history, are secretaries. Or persons with that in their job assignment.
This is a word of warning to the higher ups, the boards, the CEOs: written history is vital to your organization. A paper trail, or if you must, an electronic trail (most historians are still waiting for alternate electronic technology that is retrievable 50 years in the future) is the path to the future. You must staff for it. Hire the people whose passion in life is keeping appropriate records, who love to do that kind of thing. Not that you keep every record because "we've always done it this way," but set up a system that keeps the important stuff and then administrate to see that the record keeping happens. And let other staff get back to doing what they have a passion to do and what you pay them for: produce, brainstorm, create, follow through, administrate, execute.
Granted, there can be entire file cabinets and rooms of useless paper: purge it.
But we do need history. An office without a history is like a people without a history. What if the world had no written history?
What do you think? Is the change in office culture for the better or for worse? Respond to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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