The History of Workplace Technology

With Prof. Dimitry Anastakis, the Rotman School of Management and the Department of History, University of Toronto

Businesses are often told they should be trying to innovate, but today what that word really implies is the adoption of software and digital tools. It’s worth looking back at the history of workplace technology and how it’s been implemented to ensure that when we’re pursuing new technologies, we’re doing so in a way that’ll benefit everyone—owners, workers and clients. 

Dimitry Anastakis is the Wilson/Currie chair in Canadian business history at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the automobile industry and its development over time. He’ll soon be publishing a book on the famous entrepreneur who developed a new car in New Brunswick in the 1970s, titled Dream Car: Malcolm Bricklin’s Fantastic SV1 and the End of Industrial Modernity, from Model T to Model 3.

“Technology is everywhere in the workplace—it’s clocks, punch cards, conveyor belt assembly lines, machinery, specialized production equipment, computers, and any other technological device we interact with,” said Dimitry. 

“On any given day, no matter what kind of work you do, you’re almost always interacting with screens, devices, and other types of technology. From farm work to extractive work and from retail work to office work, we always deal with different machines and technological aids. Sometimes these become so central to how we work that we don’t even realize how ever-present technology has become in everyday work. There are not a lot of places in the working world where you do not use technology in some way, shape, or form.”

The Long View

Our modern conception of the workplace is informed by how jobs have been created and recreated by new and evolving technologies that have come about in the past two centuries. 

“The first industrial revolution introduced steam power into the workplace, whether in mines, steamships, railroads, or factories. The second industrial revolution pushed workers even closer to technology with the development of the assembly line and machine tools in manufacturing. This spurred developments like the automobile, the telephone, and a whole host of other consumable products. This also created blue-collar work, and reshaped retail, clock-watching and so many other aspects of work.

“The assembly line restructured the workplace. Humans could now use machines to produce more significant quantities of goods at a faster pace and scale. But the drawback to that system was that it deskilled workers—it made humans almost as robotic as the machines they were working with, even if it paid them a bit more. Sure, it gave us a previously unimaginable production, but the broader consequences of that development were even more significant.

“The third industrial revolution again changed how people work, consume goods and interact in society. It has been driven by robotics, increased automation in the workplace, and most importantly digitization and computerization, which have completely revolutionized work and deindustrialized much of manufacturing. The fourth industrial revolution that we’re now entering is driven further by technology, especially miniaturization, advanced robotics, and—above all—the power of computing through artificial intelligence. These technologies will again totally remake the world we know, specifically the work world, whether it’s automated vehicles or the Internet of Things.

“Technology in the workplace has provided immense benefits for humanity, but it also has been a threat to the way people have worked, which has often reduced some humans to mere automatons. For example, if you think about large employers in North America—such as Amazon, or Walmart—they have used technology and technological systems to make the production and distribution of goods far more efficient. But, this has reduced workers to what often feels like mere cogs in a broader system.”

The Office

The history of workplace technology in the office is recent enough that many will remember having worked through previous iterations. 

“From the 1970s to 1990s, much of office work required us to be tethered to desks that included typewriters or computers or other administrative tools. Given the events of recent years, there’s been a huge shift around where we do our work. This has been accelerated by advances in online software that allow us to have virtual meetings or share documents.”

Workplace technology developed for fields broadly referred to as knowledge work provides an interesting counterpoint to the previous example of the assembly line. 

“The most important development in office work has been the smartphone, which takes all the old capabilities of the office and shrinks it down into the palm of our hand. It has taken the office out of the office and made it an aspect of people’s existence throughout the day.

“Technology allows individual workers to be much more efficient, which means they are expected to do more. The biggest lesson is that humanity’s use of technology obviously has benefits, but it can also have drawbacks. And it’s not a panacea for all of our problems in the workplace or elsewhere.”

The Future

Looking back on assembly lines to today’s Amazon warehouses, it’s easy to see how workplace technology can be used in a way that benefits society and the economy, but at the workers’ expense. Although many recent advancements have somewhat had the opposite effect, freeing workers to find new ways to accomplish their goals. 

“There is a real difference in the way we think about technology in the workplace. It can be a form of work or toil or can allow our workplace creativity to flourish. Most jobs are places where technology is used in a fairly simple way that makes work more efficient and speeds up workplace processes.

“Increasingly, there are a lot of workplaces where technology allows people to embrace the creative and avoid the less toil-oriented outcomes in their jobs. My hope is that in the future more work becomes directed towards creative outcomes and that workplaces are less burdened by technology and instead are more liberated by it.”

Technological change is inevitable. But as we adopt new technologies, it’s worth pausing to ask, is this technology serving workers or asking them to serve it? Instead, we need to act as the stewards of change, using new advances as they become available to us to build the tomorrow we all want to be a part of. 

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