WE HAVE SEEN the future, and it hurts.
That's what millions of American office workers are discovering every year as computers come to dominate the deskscape and bottom-line mania deranges the work environment. If present exasperations persist, 1988 could be the year of the white-choler revolt as executives and stenos alike find that the "office of tomorrow" is just the keypunch counterpart of the sweatshop of yesterday.
High-tech or low-budget, the torments are legion:
"I can't even go to the bathroom without being watched," says an AT&T operator under electronic surveillance. "I have to put up a flag, wait my turn, sign out, sign in, and remove my flag."
As many as out of every three office buildings has no fresh air at all, warns ventilation expert Gray Robertson; and nearly half leave their inhabitants suffering from glop-clotted ductwork.
In an atmosphere of computer monitoring, inapt workstations, inflexible pacing and nerve-broiling anxiety, workman's-compensation claims based on job stress have more than doubled since 1980, and now account for approximately 15 percent of all occupational disease claims. According to estimates by the Office of Technology Assessment, stress-related illness costs business between $50 and $75 billion per year.
It's enough to make a human guinea pig yearn to be the real thing. Thanks to the compassion of Congress, our terrestrial cotenants are lavishly protected by the Animal Welfare Act. Federal regulations now mandate "a comfortable environment" with provisions for "normal postural adjustments" for animals used in laboratory research, not to mention a "suitable social environment" for even the lowliest death-doomed rodent. Further, USDA guidelines make "imperative" the "avoidance or minimization of discomfort, distress and pain" for the mice, chickens and swine sacrificed to science.
There is, however, no "Office Worker Welfare Act" for employes sacrificed to profits. And scarcely any state or federal regulation regarding how the human animal can be paced, monitored, subliminally manipulated, oxygen-starved, penned or irradiated. Beyond OSHA prohibitions against gross toxic hazards, individual labor-contract guarantees and a handful of protections in the Privacy Act and similar statutes, employers can manage their livestock as they please. And pleased they're not. Labor Department figures show that productivity in the service sector -- where electronic equipment should have maximum impact and which employs nearly three-quarters of all American workers -- is scarcely above levels in the mid-'70s, chiefly because of problems understanding and adapting to new technology.
Hence the cybernetic sweatshop -- in which the work life is "completely different in terms of the stake the employer has in each kind of employe," says Alan Westin of Columbia University, author of "The Changing Workplace." Customer-service personnel and secretaries, who can "make or break" a company's reputation, fare better, he says. But clerical workers (cheap, plentiful, dispensable and soon to be made obsolete by digital scanners that read printed text and new modes of inter-computer info-transfer) are treated accordingly.
That's an acute concern for federal employes, 80 percent of whom are office workers -- nearly 2 million people nationwide. And especially in the Washington area, where the turnover rate for clerical workers has hit 38 percent per year.
One reason is the computer's potential to "de-skill" work -- to reduce it to simple, repetitive actions. Instead of having each worker, say, record an incoming insurance claim and then follow it all the way through processing, the job is broken up: One drone does nothing but complete the same log-in forms; another grinds out identical letters to different addresses. A vastly disproportionate share of these neurocidal jobs are held by minority women.
But even valued senior employees are burning out as a consequence of computer monitoring -- which affects between 20 and 35 percent of America's office workers, according to a new OTA report. When workers use electronic gear, it is easy to meter work-time to the millisecond, tally breaks and phone calls or rank a worker's output against his colleagues. Terminals track the number of keystrokes expended on writing and revision. All necessary, managers say, to improve productivity. (Yet the Japanese don't do it, finding the notion offensive to loyalty and group esprit.)
Further, what can be monitored can be paced, using software systems based on the venerable "Methods-Time Measurement" system which allocates precise intervals for common tasks, such as stapling (2.9 seconds) or opening envelopes (7.5 seconds). Such systems make it attractive to use part-time labor or convert workers to the piecework, pay-for-performance schemes that the The Wall Street Journal recently called "one of the hottest management and labor trends around." BankAmerica, for example, paid $1 million in 1985 to install a system for rating the 3,500 employes in the credit-card division on 200 specific work criteria. "I measure everything that moves," the senior VP in charge declared.
Workers are less rhapsodic. A Boston insurance-claim keypuncher finds "incredible pressure to enter faster and faster to meet management's standard. I'd leave work every day with a terrible headache and pain in my neck and shoulders." It's a familiar gripe. The OTA survey of 110 organizations between 1982 and 1986 found that approximately two-thirds were engaged in some form of computer surveillance, monitoring, standardized-pace or quota systems.
This despite the fact that as early as 1981, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health found that clerical work involving computers and video display terminals (VDTs) produced a higher level of tension than air-traffic control. Tech-dazzled optimists dismissed the findings as a transient spasm of adjustment to the new digital workplace. But the volume of stress-based complaints continues to rise.
While employers are ciphering away at the output, they can also alter the input -- by doping the work environment with subliminal suggestions. No need to hire a programmer; it's available off the rack. Even such otherwise benign software as Breakthrough! (from Profit Technology in New York), a comprehensive training and motivation program, can be configured to flash pre-programmed displays on an employe's screen for periods as brief as 1/100th of a second.
Or one can diddle the airwaves. Mind Communication Inc. of Grand Rapids -- which offers a hundred different subliminal cassette tapes from "Getting Sober" to "Super Sex" to "Bowling" -- also provides the "Q" System to custom-embed motivational or anti-theft messages behind the office background music system, AM/FM or TV signal. It then reinforces the subliminal sermonette with "additional brain compatible conditioning" by transmitting two added tones: One to promote relaxation, one to aid alpha-wave generation.
"Commercial and corporate markets went crazy" over the idea, says company spokesman J.R. Jablonski. "They really have been looking for different tools to improve productivity and motivation." He adds that Mind Communications Inc. requires "full disclosure" of the use and content of subliminals wherever "Q" Systems are installed. Not all operations may be so scrupulous.
Moreover, gadget-creep makes it ever more possible to peer into private aspects of workers' lives -- a likely outcome, absent legal restrictions and given an employment climate in which drug and polygraph exams are becoming routine. Phone-operators' microphoneheadsets can feed back not just exchanges with customers but conversations with co-workers as well. Communications on "networked" computers can be sampled for selected key phrases. As voice-recognition technology improves, the same will be possible for phone conversations.
In fact, why not dip directly into the cranium? Westinghouse's R&D center in Pittsburgh spent four years investigating systems to analyze the brain-waves of workers in complex jobs like air-traffic control, looking particularly at a wave known as p300, a potential determinant of attentiveness and cognitive processing level. In one scenario, the employe would wear a sort of baseball cap containing wave-detecting electrodes. Program director Louis Hanes says the project has now been scrubbed. But in the current hog-eat-hog corporate competition, few technologies are lost.
That's assuming, of course, that brain waves remain possible in what is whimsically called the "air quality" of office buildings. Bacteriologist Gray Robertson, president of ACVA Atlantic Inc. -- a Fairfax-based pollution-control firm -- says that 35 percent of the buildings he has examined in the past six years have no fresh air at all, and 64 percent have an insufficient supply. Four out of 10 have ductwork systems that are "grossly contaminated" with fungi, bacteria, glass fiber, dust and debris.
Before the oil-embargo hysteria of the late '70s, the average memo-bender could expect between 15 and 20 cubic feet per minute (cf/m) per person of refreshed air. But when the crisis hit, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) dropped its recommended levels to 5 cf/m (20 for smoking areas), hoping that advanced filtration systems could do the job. (An odd notion, since according to the National Research Council, merely removing body odors alone requires 6 to 9 cf/m per capita.) Buildings became "tight" and fuel-efficient; managers lurched to shave overhead by reducing ventilation.
The wheezing legacy of those decisions is now all too apparent. Its most outrageous form is "sick building syndrome" which produces a suite of symptoms -- headaches, drowsiness, eye irritation, dizziness, sore throats -- that disappear when the employe exits the office. Usually the remedy is simple: Jack up the blowers. But it can be baffling and costly. The University of Florida at Gainesville has already spent $1 million to evacuate and relocate 70 workers from a veterinary teaching hospital after mass complaints began last year; and the state ponied up an additional $2.6 million to solve the problem, whose cause is still unknown.
But even a seemingly benign office can be filled with infectious microbes from fungi and molds, along with asbestos, pollen and spores, carbon dioxides, benzene, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde from wood resins, ozone from copiers, toluene from cleaning fluids, trichloroethane and -ethylene from office-supply fluids and sundry other irritants and suspected carcinogens. In fact, a recent EPA study found that indoor air carries pollutant levels as much as 1,000 times higher than outdoors -- not only in such relatively bucolic sites as Greensborough N.C. and Devils Lake, N.D. but in heavily industrialized areas such as fragrant Bayonne, N.J. "Astounding," one EPA official called the findings.
ASHRAE is in the process of raising its ventilation standard to a base minimum of 15 cf/m per person and in April will announce results of research on office complexes specifically designed to reduce pollutant levels through engineering innovations and use of organic materials. There are no federal standards -- although NIOSH, following worker complaints, examined 356 buildings between 1971 and 1985 and found that half the problems were caused by bad ventilation alone, and another quarter by indoor pollutants.
Office energy costs "run about $100 per person per year," says Robertson. By reducing ventilation rates, "you can cut that 25 percent. But where's the economy in that if all you do is make somebody sick?"
Aggravating the situation is the faddish "open design" office, wherein traditional enclosed spaces are replaced by low-level "systems" furniture modules which lock together like Lego bricks. Highly touted as the most attractive and space-effective configuration for automated offices, they squeeze costs by squash employes into ever-smaller enclosures.
Not everyone is convinced. The Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation recently concluded a seven-year study of 5,000 workers in 70 different offices. It found that while saving space saves money, past a certain point it is counterproductive. "Job satisfaction drops when floor area is reduced by more than 25 percent," says BOSTI president Michael Brill. The open-office conversions studied produced average cuts of 19 percent for professional and technical employes and 32 percent for clerical workers.
Nonetheless, the GSA's freshly hatched building plan, "New Agenda for a Quality Workplace" enthuses over how open/modular arrays will cut the average floorspace per worker "significantly below the 135-square-foot maximum." Very significantly, to judge from what happened at a branch of the Defense Logistic Agency when a redesign project recently trimmed the workspace for a group of procurement agents from 135 square feet to 40. (That's 5 by 8, slightly larger than a dining-room table but considerably smaller than the 48 square feet federal guidelines demand for a 200-pound laboratory pig.) The agency says it got a big cost-savings in floor-space lease fees, improved productivity and worker "satisfaction." GSA is so proud of this shrink-o-rama that they include an account of it with the press kit on the "New Agenda."
"Below about 35 square feet it becomes grotesque," says Brill. As for the absolute minimum, who would want to know? "It's like saying at what point does somebody start to starve." In addition, the Buffalo study indicates, totally open designs actually decrease job performance; an ideal workstation should have panels on four sides at least 65 inches high.
Worse yet, such reshufflings often ignore the traditional "psychological wages" of office work. A secretary whose self-esteem was once enhanced by superior mobility around the office and ability to drop in on the bosses is now tethered to a video screen, sending "electronic mail" into the ether. "De-skilled" workers grumble at being unable to "close the loop," to take a task from inception to completion. And OTA found that telephone directory-assistance becomes "a literally thankless job" when operators no longer speak the number, but simply key up a voice synthesizer.
Cost-cutters also find it easy to ignore elementary ergonomic principles. Yet clinical evidence is overwhelming that maldesigned VDT workstations cause myriad problems. According to a 1986 study by the Data Entry Management Association, 66 percent of data-entry operators suffered neck and shoulder pain; 47 percent had burning eyes; 44 percent experienced blurred vision. As well, wrist and hand disorders are increasing owing to high keystroke volume and the nature of computer keyboards, which provide no place to rest palm. The resulting curvature of the wrist can produce tendinitis and crippling carpal tunnel syndrome, a swelling of the tendon sheaths and compression of the median nerve. Add cheap screens, dust and glare, non-adjustable furniture, CRT radiation, "shared" terminals (forcing workers to view the screen at angle, so that each eyeball has to focus at a different distance) and the result is a techno-stress treadmill.
To date, few legislative initiatives have addressed office work. A House bill sponsored by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) would forbid phone monitoring without an audible warning tone. Employe-monitoring legislation is pending in user-friendly Massachusetts; and last summer the California state Assembly voted to prohibit employers from using subliminal messages without workers' consent. (The governor vetoed the measure as "unenforcable.") D.C. City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark introduced a bill to limit phone surveillance and keep subliminal messages off VDTs. ACVA's Robertson cheerfully regards federal air-quality regulation as "inevitable." But for now, the office work environment remains a laissez-faire freehold for Future Yuck.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department is responding to 1985 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act by giving "priority status" to special regulations governing "the psychological wellbeing of primates."
Curt Suplee is an editor of Outlook.