When actress Jane Fonda was preparing for her role in the motion picture "Nine to Five," she visited Cleveland and listened for hours to some tales of woe from secretaries who were trying to humanize their offices, do away with personal abuse and improve their working conditions.

Many of the incidents portrayed in the movie were fictional recreations of some sexist or office horror stories that Fonda heard.

Critics didn't think much of the film, but it has had an immediate impact -- a growing drive by organized labor to see if office workers want union representation by a new District 925 (a play on the movie title) of the Service Employees International Union or by the AFL-CIO, which is talking of a small organization drive later this year.

Whatever the outcome of theme efforts, the movie has served also to attract attention to the offices in which tens of millions of American workers toil, often in a losing battle of confronting growing mounds of paperwork, not to mention bosses like "Nine to Five' s Mr. Hart.

Even though the population of office workers is a large and growing share of the work force, the subject of office problems has not been recognized by the general public as a critical or priority national issue today.

However, many business and government planners, educators, economists and people whose job it is to think about the future have been talking with growing alarm in recent years about what they see as a real crisis -- one with enormous implications for overall American economic productivity.

In brief, their consensus is that many current office operations are as obsolete as the Model "T" and wasteful of money and human resources (both at the clerical and executive levels).

"With a massive annual expenditure of more than $800 billion in salary and fringe benefits to office-based, white-collar workers in the United States, business and government must improve the output of its key decision makers and reverse" a record of productivity in the office that was far behind the blue-collar sector in the 1970s, says Mark Berman of the Booz, Allen & Hamilton management consultants.

Berman's company has estimated that the direct cost of white-collar operations could reach $1.5 trillion by 1990. And U.S. business could save as much as $300 billion a year within a decade if offices were converted to a 1980s technological environment, Booz, Allen estimated in one of the few exhaustive studies of the situtation last year.

As evidence of the growing concern about the shape of the nation's offices, a virtual cottage industry has grown up to conduct seminars and meetings for studying planning concepts and modern technology. A key ingredient in many such meetings is a trade show or exhibition of the lastest in office equipment, from computer graphics to modular space design.

Washington is a major focal point for these efforts because, as a Sony Corp. official quipped last week, "Washington is clearly the paperwork capital of the Western world."

Philip Wyatt, manager of product development for Sony Office Products, made his remark at a three-day International Inn conference on "The Automated Office," presented by the National Institute for Management Research. Similar sessions are planned by that organization later this year in New York and Chicago.

And starting next weekend, one of the biggest conferences and exhibits on the office of the future is expected to attract some 15,000 persons to the Sheration Washington hotel.

Called the Federal Office Systems Expo and organized by National Trade Productions Inc. of Lanham, this conference is projected to include the biggest display to date of information technology not only for the government but also for the private sector.

The exposition will be part of a three-day program that includes 85 speakers at more than 40 separate sessions, with a keynote address by former U.S. comptroller general Elmer Staats, who retired Friday after 15 years of fighting to reduce government waste.

Titles of the various programs help portray the extent of problems that are being studied including information management, career paths, integrating technologies in the office, cost-effective mail management, the "word-processing" marketplace, copying management and trends, and micrographics.

Word-processing is a fancy name for machines that sometimes look like typewriters, but which today can complete a variety of office and information-processing functions. The new terminology came with a revolution in office equipment and facilities that began in the late 1960s. The problem is that many offices haven't moved into the modern era, at least for all of their workers.

Sony's Wyatt notes that the idea of measurably improving the production of office workers wasn't even seriously considered until the past decade, while most attention was focused on the lagging growth of industrial productivity (where American factories continue to lead the world in output per worker but with less of a gap between the United States and other nations). At the same time, however, the services sector of total employment has been growing to the point where more than 50 percent of all workers are producing and processing information while industrial jobs have declined as a share of the work force.

Thus, many business executives believe that the greatest opportunity for overall productivity gains by the American economy in this decade are to be found in the office. There are perceived to be various elements in any successful attempt to bring about this economic miracle, including employee involvement, introduction of modern technologies, better management and measurement of operations and continuing education.

Later this year, the Houston-based American Productivity Center, led by former Cost of Living Council head C. Jackson Grayson, plans to begin an extensive project on white-collar productivity improvement. Among the factors that will be studied are:

What is a white-collar worker and what is white-collar productivity?

What data bases and case histories can be developed to help managements keep abreast of productivity efforts and results in other organizations?

What management structures are best for achieving productivity gains?

What are the potentials and problems of informatiom technology?

According to Harvey Poppel, senior vice president of Booz, Allen, one of the most significant obstacles has been top management itself, "more mystified than dazzled by the implications of bubble memory capacities, megabit transmission capabilities, and the like."

But he said that top executives now are beginning to sense enormous potential productivity gains to be won. To the extent that new technology has been added to the office, it has been on the clerical side. What has been neglected, experts say, is management. But times are changing.

"As more and more analyses of return on investment in the new office technology spread, the touted payoffs in profits and enhanced management capabilities are convincing many of those who have the clout to commit the necessary assets to new office organization and structure," he added.

Among the key problems cited by Poppel in a report last year were such "chronic timewasters" in white-collar environments as trying to find and digest the correct information, generating and disseminating documents, unnecessary travel time away from the office and keeping on top of previous assignments and tasks.

For example, Poppel said that office audio and video conferences would permit more participation with less travel.

By wasting the time of managers and office personnel, individuals do not have the time to analyze what they are doing, make long-range plans, take part in more decisions and improve professional skills. Such deficiencies result in decreased revenue production, delivery of services and higher cost, he concluded.

In 1979, according to Poppel, U.S. companies spent $800 billion to support office-based white-collar persons. Of that amount, $600 billion was for salaries and wages with some $30 billion for computer/communications resources for clerical workers, $21 billion to other nonprofessional-level workers and just $78 billion for computer/communications resources of management.

If computers had not been in use for two decades, the figure for clerical workers would have been higher, he added.

In Poppel's view, offices should be considered as nerve centers of a business or government organization. And office automation can improve the quality and productivity of these nerver centers. Besides new technology, he called for clear redefinition of responsibilities, better work allocation, flexible working hours and better organizational structure.

He has a "unifying theory of office management" that requires managers who view the office differently than today by considering effects of automated office operation on other activities.

Wyatt of Sony said middle and upper managements have been virtually untouched by the word-processing revolution. "For the highest-paid members of the office work force, using automated equipment to improve productivity has been a spectator sport," he said last week. He cited as among the causes the fact that technology often has not been able to give decision makers the right information at the right time.

In addition, he cited "resitance to change of any kind," intimidation by electronic equipment and an element of snob appeal.

"The value system that takes reassurance from the availability of a personal secretary . . . who will sit and take dictation or fetch information, even though the time of the secretary and the executive would be used more productively if these functions were handled electronically," is typical of the latter in Wyatt's opinion.

Business "can't affort to tolerate" the attitude that word-processing should stay in the typing pool at a time when executives spend as little as 10 percent of their working hours actually thinking, he said. But improving personal productivity at all levels of the office will require missionary work in the business community, Wyatt conceded.

His proposal to producers of office equipment -- all major manufacturers have taken space for exhibits at the Washington show -- is personalization of equipment to meet differing needs and lifestyles: "This concept is going to dominate what you will be seeing from equipment vendors in the '80's. It is the catalyst which will eventually change executives' attitudes about personal productivity."

Like all of the office equipment firms, Sony is unveiling new lines and products at a rapid pace along the road to what some call the paperless office. Naturally, corporations that build office products want to convince business and government of the future savings and their success to date has made the information industry one of the most healthy in the nation. Even Exxon Corp., the world's largest petroleum company, has jumped into office systems over the last decade with gusto and a desire for participation in a future growth sector of the economy.

Total spending for information processing products, services and supplies alone (figures that don't include other office equipment and furniture, for example) will grow some 15 percent this year to $62 billion, according to International Data Corp. of Waltham, Mass. Within that big sector, office automation and personal computer sales are expected to rise 30 percent or more.

One of the new market products scheduled to go to market this year is from Sony, with a long-anticipated entry into office automation with a portable typewriter in a briefcase. Called "Typerecorder," the Sony product uses no paper and weighs 3 pounds. It uses battery power and measures 8 1/2-by-11-by-11 1/2 inches. Words typed on a standard-style keyboard are displayed on a readout and recorded on tape, with corrections made readily.

The machine can be used as a recorder for dictation and transcription or to record meetings. Later, the text can be printed on a separate compact printer, processed in other information machine, typed on existing typewriters with a special attachment or even transmitted over a telephone line.

Sony is planning to sell the basic unit for about $1,400 and Wyatt called it a "state of the art response to the need for personalized office equipment." This new product plus competing machines from other manufacturers may have a measurable impact on the automation of small work group functions, including chages in the old one-to-one relationship between boss and secretary. i

The secretary will become more of an administrative assistant instead of "an impractical alternative to automation," as the boss goes one-to-one with microprocessor-driven desktop equipment, in Wyatt's scenario. Automation of this nature also will give business and government the flexibility to assign work to people who don't have to be in the office every day.

As for the federal government, whose own equipment needs are counted in billions of dollars, a five-year program to purchase word-processing systems began in 1977. A subsequent General Service Administration report said the new equipment had little impact on productivity because managers involved also were not educated.

Progress has been made in more recent months. The Library of Congress is seeking bids from four companies (Xerox, Lexitron, Compucorp and CPT) on a system to produce research reports. A computerized correspondence management system is in place at the House of Representatives. The Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego has been cited as a pioneer within the Defense Department for integration of technological expertize and a concern for human aspects of office automation: in June, a demonstration is scheduled for a new system that Navy personnel can use to obtain information at many sites on 140,000 officers and 780,000 enlisted persons.

The range of business enterprises engaged in office equipment and technology extends from such corporate giants as Exxon. International Business Machines, Xerox and Kodak to a small Washington firm, Roth Young Personal Service.

Roth Young has opened a new division that will specialize in recruitment of word processors and other office personnel, according to company President Frank Elliott.

Another local firm, Dialcom Inc. of Silver Spring, has been engaged in offering computer services for improving office productivity since 1970, with branch offices now established or planned in Chicago, Toronto and New York. Offices of Dialcom, which has emphasized electronic-mail systems as a major productivity producer, contend that the computer should have a role not only in work of the file clerks but also the executive.

With clients such as Westinghouse Corp., Citibank of New York, the World Bank, Chessie System and the Energy and Agriculture departments among 1,100 customers with 30,000 users. Dialcom's programs use electronic mail as the data base with which other office systems are integrated. Electronic forms processing and executive scheduling are just two of the end products.

The potential for riches from providing services, consulting and equipment for modern offices is behind this exploding business sector. Exxon has invested an estimated $1 billion into office equipment and won customers away from IBM, for example, but has yet to win profits.

Minneapolis-based 3M Co. also has faced difficulties in winning more of the automated office market but is taking unusual steps to change this picture. Lewis Lehr, 3M's new chairman as of last June, and John Pitblado, the president for U.S. operations, both traveled to Washington last Friday to explain a basic change in sales strategy to some 250 company representatives.

For the first time in 32 years, Lehr is asking 3M people to speak for the entire company and its 45 product lines, even though each person represents just one of 40 divisions. "This policy may prove eventually to be as significant as some of the major changes in our past. . . . Our Strategy for the '80s is synergistic selling, the application of all of our many technologies and sales forces," Lehr stated.

The 3M plan will require each sales person to become aware of all company product lines and help reduce problems caused by fragmented sales efforts for separate copiers, facsimile machines and microfilm, for example. The division in the past has hurt attempts to promote overall office intergration and the $6-billion-a-year 3M Co. has picked the office as a premier future market.

Competition is bound to grow more intense. Some analysts think Exxon eventually will give up, for example. Sony's Wyatt predicts that prices will drop sharply and that many companies won't "be able to take the heat over the next five years. . . . They will either fold or be gobbled up by bigger companies."