From typewriters to cloud computing, this will be a history lesson for some and a surprise at how we worked “back in the day”! For others, it will be a walk down memory lane and a reminder of just how far we’ve come…

To say that office productivity has evolved somewhat over the past 50 years would be an enormous understatement. Technology has impacted office life to such an extent that the future existence of the office itself is being called into question – the pandemic has proven that many can work from home just as effectively as they did from behind their office desks. (Time will tell us what security, productivity, business continuity and other ramifications might ensue – this may well kick-off the next installment to the story if you check back in with us in 50 years’ time!)

Here we’re going to look back at how office productivity has evolved, right up to the cloud-based era of productivity that we inhabit today…

The first to-do list

It’s pretty much impossible to define when people started measuring office productivity.

As far back as 1791, Benjamin Franklin was producing a primitive to-do list that started with “the morning question – what good shall I do this day?” and ended in early evening with a reminder to “put things in their places” and an “examination of the day”. He didn’t get a big green tick or karma points in his To Do app for completing the day’s tasks, of course, but the notion of getting stuff done to a schedule was well established.

Zooming forward to the middle of the 20th century, and offices were still dominated by getting things down on paper. Computers had yet to become mainstream technology and instead, it was typewriters that dominated office desks, with the clattering of keys, tinging bells and clanking noise of the carriage return providing a constant din. Even the advent of the quieter electronic typewriter failed to quell the concentration-sapping racket of the typical office environment.

Some workers grew so accustomed to the noise that they actually missed it when offices were eventually computerised. As recently as 2014, staff at The Times newspaper turned up to work to find the noise of typewriters being piped into their office, the clatter growing as deadlines neared at the end of the day, in a bid to trigger the adrenaline rush in writers. It was a short-lived experiment.

The PC era

That Times experiment perhaps failed because many of its staff had never worked in the typewriter era. By the 1980s, personal computers had begun to take hold in the workplace, replacing typewriters with desktop terminals.

This was the era that gave birth to many of the big IT companies and products that still dominate the industry today. Microsoft shot to prominence in the 1980s, with the first version of Windows arriving in 1985. The IBM compatible PC became a common sight on desks, and Apple emerged onto the scene.

However, that 1980s hardware was extremely limited. Take the IBM Personal Computer XT released in 1983: it had only 128KB of RAM and a 10MB hard drive. The accompanying screen was often monochrome, maybe colour later in the decade, but the graphical interface was still a work in progress. Almost everything was text-based. A basic command such as copy-and paste would take numerous keystrokes and a few seconds to process. Productivity was limited and largely chained to the office – if you wanted to work on something at home, you had to save it to a sizeable, fragile floppy disk and pop that into a hulking great machine at home, assuming you had a PC at home in the first place, which was by no means a given.

The Internet arrives

The 1990s was the decade that changed everything. Prompted by the arrival of Windows 95, the operating system that finally made the PC user-friendly, PCs became commonplace both in the office and the home.

However, the real driving force behind PC adoption was mainstream access to the internet. Email became the default means of business communication within the decade. Web browsing became both a business essential and a distraction from the job at hand. New forms of communication, such as instant messaging, were in their infancy. Companies began selling online.

The scale of office transformation in such a short space of time was unprecedented. The 90s was also the decade in which the Office apps took hold. Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint became business staples, paving the way for Microsoft 365 today.

The mobile revolution

Computers didn’t stay confined to desks for long. Although laptops had been around in almost suitcase-sized formats since the early 1980s, it wasn’t really until the turn of the century that laptops became portable and powerful enough for everyday use.

That was soon followed by the advent of mobile phones and, subsequently, smartphones. Now you didn’t even need a laptop to browse the web, answer email and work remotely, you could do it on a device that slipped into a pocket. The arrival of the iPhone, the shift to 3G data networks and the advent of the app marketplace saw people working in ways that hadn’t even been imagined before.

For the first time, people were within reach of a connected device around the clock. Emails could be answered on the commuter train home, documents could be reviewed from a sunbed on the beach. Productivity had never had it so good, although employees now grappled with the knotty work-life balance.

Come into the cloud

Limited fixed-line broadband speeds and even slower mobile networks meant computing largely stayed local for the first decade of this century. However, the rapid rollout of fibre broadband and WiFi networks allowed a new computing revolution is taking place. 4G and now 5G mobile connectivity has also allowed speed to ramp up exponentially.

Instead of relying on ever-more powerful personal devices and companies’ own servers, computing has increasingly shifted to the cloud, with applications and business data hosted in huge and highly reliable data centres instead of being stored locally. Now it’s just as easy to open a web browser on a tablet and edit a document as it is to fire up Microsoft Word on a laptop and tweak the file.

That’s just as well because the recent pandemic suddenly forced the world’s workforce to work from home for months on end, often on their own equipment. Companies that had embraced cloud computing were able to give homeworkers access to business-critical applications and data with minimal disruption – something that just wouldn’t have been possible even a decade earlier. Services such as Microsoft 365 prevented a far more dramatic economic collapse.

Now, with the business world trying to figure out what a post-pandemic world looks like, one of the few certainties is that cloud computing is going to become even more critical to our future productivity.

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