*** Computers are moving into the office with increasing rapidity, bringing about a major change in the nature of office work. That's inevitable.

*** These high-tech machines have the potential to ease the tedium of routine tasks, or they can develop into monsters, damage the physical and mental health of the clerical staff -- maybe even eliminate their jobs.

*** To ensure that automation's beneficial consequences triumph, now is the time to get moving.

That is the message to the nation's 18- to 20-million clerical workers that emerged from a recent two-day international conference in Boston on "Office Work and New Technology."

"Like it or not," said "9 to 5" executive director Karen Nussbaum in a keynote address, "we're participating in a dramatic change." She termed the conference a lead-off salvo in a national debate on automation and "how to turn the dangers into opportunities."

The sense of urgency was reemphasized by Massachusetts Gov.-elect Michael Dukakis, who noted, "We have a habit in this country of waiting until it hits us in the eye."

Sponsored by "9 to 5" (the 12,000-member National Association of Working Women), the conference drew automation experts from the United States, Canada and a number of western European countries, including France, West Germany, Norway, Sweden and Italy; representatives of unions, management, the Labor Department, universities and computer manufacturers.

Nussbaum's organization has taken up the cause because, as it reports, women hold 80 percent of all clerical jobs: 99 percent of all secretaries, 95 percent of typists, 93 percent of bank tellers.

"The typical American worker," says Nussbaum, "is no longer a man in a hard hat. She is a woman at the typewriter -- or, rather, at a keyboard."

Over the course of two full days of speeches, panels and workshops, the participants:

* Heard angry complaints from clerical employes charging that computers had transformed their jobs into deadly rote work.

* Recognized the potential of computers for redesigning the tedium out of office work, and simultaneously enlarging a worker's responsibility and increasing productivity.

* Were offered an example of how Western Europe is achieving office automation, often with full cooperation of clerical employes. The approach involves giving workers a voice in important decisions affecting their work, beginning as far back as the design of the machine to be used. In some instances, union-won policies limit the amount of daily time a worker may spend at a video display terminal.

* Began developing a strategy of action to bring about the positive potential of computers in the office.

At times, the conference took on a tone of confrontation -- a call, in large part, for unionization of clerical workers as a way to make their voices heard. This brought a warning from one management spokesman, John J. Connell of the California-based Office Technology Research Group, who argues that "we are all in this together."

In America's business community today, there is one keyboard for every five office workers, he says, but in five years there will be "four keyboards for every five office workers," including both clerical and management staffs.

Connell acknowledges that a strong historical basis exists for office workers' fear of automation. From about 1956, computers were brought in to cut clerical employes, "and it worked," he says, "we did eliminate a lot of jobs."

But more recently he has seen the surfacing of a new management attitude in which "the purpose of technology should no longer be the loss of jobs, but the extension of their capabilities." While there still are lots of "Neanderthal men in business," he says, many companies make it a policy to find comparable or better replacement jobs for those affected by automation.

Nevertheless, the grievances were many. Among the complaints uncovered by Boston University sociologist Roslyn Feldberg in her study of two New England firms (a utility and insurance company):

* Operators were instructed to enter material into the computers without change as presented to them, although often they could spot errors in the basic data. "They were not expected to be able to decide if the information was correct."

* Customer representatives' work pace was regulated by the computer. If a client's complicated question kept them on the phone, it affected their daily production goal, which management monitored closely.

* Decisions on performance of computer jobs were "being made further and further away from the people who use them."

While several conference participants cited problems of eye strain, headaches and backaches from day-long work at a video display terminal, the real trouble, suggests research psychologist Barbara Cohen of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, might lie in the routine nature of the work, not the machine itself.

Her studies indicate that management and professional staffs, working an equal amount of time on a computer, report less "stress and strain" than clerical employes. The probable reason: Those at the top reap satisfaction from their jobs; those at the bottom must contend with "little control over their own work," "rigid work procedures," "constant pressure to perform" and "little identification with the end product."

America's clerical workers, she says, "have just begun to get attention."

Often, a firm's goal is not increased productivity from automation, says researcher Harley Shaiken of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but tighter supervisory control of office workers -- "monitoring the workflow." Those kinds of systems tend to dilute "skills, creativity and enthusiasm."

On the other hand, several speakers noted that it is possible to "design" computer-based jobs to reduce routine and increase the responsibilities of clerical workers.

In the case of a company where several clerks each process one step of the paperwork, a computer might make it possible for each clerk to handle the entire file from start to finish, suggests Jon B. Ryberg of the Facility Management Institute of Ann Arbor, a research arm of the Herman Miller office furniture company. "It enlarges the clerical job."

"Unless we reorganize work, we will never reduce the social costs [of automation]," maintains Kari Thoresen of the Norwegian Computing Center in Oslo. That means "variation in work," "job discretion," "contact possibilities" (with co-workers) and "an opportunity for learning."

Her country has taken a lead in insuring that workers are consulted when automation is introduced, though she points out this is probably easier in Norway, which has a much smaller population (4 million) than the United States, and where clerical workers have strong unions.

In Sweden, before the telephone company brought in computers, a working committee of union representatives and management was established to decide everything from the optimum height of tables to the color of the room and style of curtains and carpets.

Such a process takes longer and "is more troubling," acknowledges educator Claudio Ciborra of Politechnico de Milano of Milan, Italy, "but in the end you have systems that are productive -- and are used by the user."

At the conference's conclusion, speaker Mary Sue Henifin, of the Women's Occupational Health Resource Center at Columbia University, summed up what seems to be the next step for the meeting's organizers in confronting automation:

"We have to have an enormous educational campaign. Many employers are not even aware there's a problem. Academia needs to document the extent of the hazards." And workers themselves, she advises, should "develop active workplace health and safety commissions."

Copies of the conference proceedings and other material on office automation may be obtained from 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, 1224 Huron Rd., Cleveland, Ohio 44115 or (216) 566-9308.