Awkward Office

Office Luddites: When Technology Is Your Worst Enemy


Office Luddites: When Technology Is Your Worst Enemy

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

Teresa is a 29-year-old woman who works for an automotive company in Oklahoma. She spends much of her weekdays typing up, filing, and faxing paperwork. That’s right, faxing. Until just a few months ago, Teresa manually sent up to 500 faxes a week, as if it were still 1992 and e-mail didn’t exist. Don’t even get her started on the typewriters.

“We have these stickers that we have to put on things,” she explains. “A co-worker was showing me how to make them once, and she was like, ‘First, put the roll of stickers in the typewriter.’ I was like, ‘I don’t have a typewriter.’ She looks at me and says, ‘Oh! Well, maybe you can use Roberta’s.’  Um, no. I’m not using a typewriter.”

Not everyone works in a technological time warp like Teresa, but we all probably know someone who can’t seem to master an important machine or software program in the office. Before he co-founded the consumer electronic website gdgt, Ryan Block worked as editor-in-chief of Engadget, which was purchased by AOL (AOL) in 2005. At the time, AOL was run by Randy Falco, the chief executive officer who didn’t use e-mail. “His e-mails would come in and his secretary would print them out and give them to him,” Block says, “How does the CEO of AOL not use e-mail?” I don’t know, but it may explain why most people these days use Gmail.

Even if you know how to send an e-mail, that doesn’t mean you know how to do it properly. According to a 2011 poll by digital communication company VaporStream, 60% of employees occasionally hit “reply all” on e-mails when they intend to respond only to one person. “You have to know when to ‘CC’ people and ‘BCC’ people and when not to copy them,” says About.com’s career expert, Alison Doyle. “That’s as much a part of the technology as actually working the program.”

Doyle guides people as they search for and switch jobs, which means that she deals with all sorts of employees, from recent college grads to older workers re-entering the workforce. Technological ignorance isn’t related to a person’s age, she says, but how long they’ve remained at their current job. “If you’ve been in the same position for five or 10 years, you probably haven’t had to keep as up-to-date with new products and technology than if you’d been switching around,” she says. Depending on the industry and what you do, “there will be a steep learning curve for you when you leave.”

This explains part of the problem at Teresa’s office; most of her co-workers have been with the company for more than 20 years. “When I first started, one of my co-workers was introduced to me as ‘the new guy,’” she says, “So I said, ‘Oh, you’re new here too?’ He was like, ‘I started in 1991.’” When people stay in a job that long, she says, “they don’t think about how our printer is from 1994 and really old; they think, ‘Oh, that’s the new printer we got in 1994!’”

Dealing with technological Luddites—whether it’s just one co-worker or the entire office—can be frustrating, and several online message boards let people vent about their colleagues. “It seems to me that in 2012 it shouldn’t be too much to ask a co-worker to type a list of names into Excel,” writes one woman on the scrap-booking website Two Peas in a Bucket. “One co-worker can’t even find Excel on her computer and the other says she doesn’t know how to use it and doesn’t care to learn. … It’s frustrating because it creates more work for me.”

If you do find yourself falling technologically behind, says Block, now might be a good time to play catch-up. “Twenty years ago, when some of us were still typing commands into DOS prompts, if you didn’t know what you were doing, you’d be totally confused,” he says. “But we’ve gotten to a point now that if you’re just tuning in, if you ignored all the changes in the 90s and 00s and are just getting smartphone or a tablet, these devices are so easy to use—compared to what we were using before—that you’ll still be in a good place.” And while it’s true that gadgets are changing faster than ever—every few months we see something exponentially sleeker, faster, and smarter than the machines that came before it—most of the upgrades are just minor details that can be ignored by the passive user. In other words, you might want to get a smartphone, but you don’t have to get one that talks to you—yet.

That doesn’t help Teresa, who says she really does have to type commands into DOS prompts from time to time. But she drew the line at the typewriter. Instead, she came up with a better solution. “I just write everything with a Sharpie,” she says.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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