I remember the first time I accessed the Internet. It was circa 1996 and I worked as a Research Executive for a market research company. I poured myself a coffee as the computer whirred into life. “Today I’ll show you how to access the worldwide web” said my manager. I watched as she connected a strange looking plug to the phone socket, then opened a “window” on the computer, clicked the mouse and dialled up a connection. Suddenly a high-pitched sequence of beeping and screeching noises erupted from the speakers. It sounded like something was seriously wrong, but as silence returned she exclaimed “that’s it, we’re connected!”
We opened a search engine called Alta Vista (in those days Google wasn’t a verb), typed in the search term “viewing facility London” and proceeded to search for a suitable location to conduct some focus groups. There weren’t many results; a page or two at most. There were no sponsored results at the top of the page, nor advertisements down the side either. In fact there were very few companies with a web presence at all.
Shortly afterwards the postman arrived with a pile of post, held together with several thick elastic bands and dropped it onto my desk. Invoices, letters from suppliers, bank statements, bills, CVs from job hunters. It took me an hour or so to sift through the mail, filing documents appropriately in the rickety wire trays stacked on the corner of my desk – In, Out and Pending.
I loved my job. Loved this amazing new world it opened up for me. Talked enthusiastically about it to my friends and family on long, lazy, work-free weekends. Let’s face it, those were the days when nothing was done from the moment you left the office on a Friday until the moment you walked back through the door on a Monday morning.
In the past two decades technology has revolutionised the way we work. We are a wireless, paperless, fast-moving, connected, global workforce which, like the Big Apple, never sleeps. We are in touch with the whole of the world, twenty-four-seven. Business communications have never been easier or quicker. Isn’t it fantastic?
Well yes, it absolutely is, but it comes at a cost. The connected workforce is less tangible. It’s possible to go for whole days or more, without even seeing or speaking to business contacts. Instead we message them, email them, tweet, post, blog, Google, we Skype and run webinars, we send information and documents electronically. And we’re still messaging, emailing, tweeting and posting once the office doors are shut. From our trains, buses, sofas and sadly, sometimes even our beds. Work can invade our personal lives and the long, lazy weekends become brief gaps in time. We’ve not just changed the way we do business; we’ve changed the way we live.
You could argue that this is inevitable progression in society, much the same as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone revolutionised both business and personal communications. Personally, I love being part of the connected university. The fact that we are becoming paperless has huge benefits to the environment. I love the fact that I can allow my students the luxury of attending a virtual lecture, a webinar, so that they don’t have to fight through traffic and pollute the atmosphere to get in to university for that day. But I couldn’t do it every day because I still need that face to face interaction with them. We are human beings after all. We can embrace technology and all that it represents, but I still want to do business with people, not machines.
I love to bump into my students in the corridor, say ‘hi’, catch up over a coffee. But like many, I like my personal time away from work too and the struggle to protect this is real.
Technology has indeed revolutionised the way we do business, but a word of warning; don’t forget the human touch. I remember being taught that “people buy people” and despite the digitally connected World that we live in, I still believe this to be true. I also believe that you work to live, not live to work. Technology has allowed work to invade our precious and much needed personal time and we are the only ones who can police that (I have to admit that I am guilty as charged in that respect).
So switch off your laptop, phone, iPad once in a while. Switch them off when work is done. Roll back twenty-plus years, talk to people… and enjoy!