How the Workplace Has Changed Over 50 Years

Flip boar rendering of the year 1969

Halt, Buzas & Powell is 50 years old! We are excited to be celebrating half a century of helping clients fulfill their unique visions of success. While “success” looks different for everyone, office expectations and behavior tend to be more or less consistent across the country – but not across time!  As part of our Focus on 50 anniversary celebration, we’re taking a look at some of the huge workplace changes we’ve witnessed over the years.

Adapting to change is an important key to long-term success for all organizations, and in our 50 years we have seen huge changes in economic conditions, regulatory frameworks and other elements of the business landscape. None of those changes, however, have been as dramatic and pervasive change as the shift over the past half-century in day-to-day workplace conditions that affect employers and employees alike.

Like most others in 1969, our original office was chock full of typewriters, rotary phones and tall filing cabinets. Mad Men fans will visualize the scene immediately from the show’s later seasons. Things look very different now, but the physical trappings only scratch the surface. Societal changes (and the laws to support them) have impacted everything about the office environment, from the participants to their expectations, their behavior and even the way they interact with each other.

Who’s on the Team?

When HBP opened its doors, American offices were almost exclusively staffed with white men (the bosses) supported by a few white women (secretaries and administrative support, all wearing beehive hairdos). The decades since have brought a far greater variety in ethnicity and disability status, with a subsequent diversity in thinking, and seen women fill an increasing number of leadership roles. Some of these women are even – gasp! – obviously pregnant!

Back then, working women in nearly every industry were expected to quit their jobs when they had a baby. Those who didn’t have the sense to quit were fired, because obviously a mother couldn’t also hold a “real” job. That sounds ridiculous today, when maternity leave is automatic and breast-feeding mothers often find dedicated spaces to pump milk for little ones at home. Those little ones aren’t always at home anymore, either. On-site daycare is a common workplace perk that makes life easier for parents of both sexes.

The people making up the workplace are more diverse, and their work attire shows even more variability. Hoodie? Leggings? Sleeveless/unbuttoned/bare-legged? It’s all okay! That’s an exaggeration in some organizations, but for the most part office attire for both men and women is less formal and less regimented than it was in our early days.

Employee Rights

The office isn’t just more diverse; it’s now a more respectful place for most participants. Bosses can no longer fire staff because they don’t like the cut of their jib, the color of their skin or the life partners they choose. Disability isn’t the barrier to employment it once was, either. Employers expect and are expected to make reasonable accommodations that allow disabled workers to perform most jobs.

No one, boss or entry-level worker, still thinks it’s okay to make pointed comments or jokes about race, religion, sexual preference, physical appearance, age or other personal characteristics. And if someone didn’t get that memo, they’ll be swiftly challenged in court for violations of anti-discrimination law.

One of our original team members recalls a time when men in our office, feeling peckish, would casually steal the lunches female staffers had brought and eat them for a snack. Why? Well why not? Try that today at HBP or any other business and you’re likely to land a disciplinary meeting with HR along with a tense conversation led by a strong female professional.

More than law has changed here. Employers and employees at every organization, public and private, carry the expectation that they must treat colleagues with fairness, politeness and a lack of bias. They must also refrain from objectionable behavior, which now includes smoking. But before the 1990s, “office” was roughly synonymous with “smoke-filled room” whether you liked it or not. Only enterprising racoons and rodents lurked by the dumpsters, hoping not to be noticed.

Ready for a break? No problem. Mandated breaks, overtime pay and safe working conditions (including nearby restrooms) are now both the norm and the law, but they weren’t always. Doing your job well, on the other hand, was. Just as in previous decades, employees at every level are expected to meet adequate performance levels. In the old days, failure to meet the standard usually led to immediate termination. Persistent underperformance today is more likely to result in a formal notice of deficiency and a remediation plan that includes targeted retraining and job coaching. Of course, some employers will still tolerate a lot more than others before taking definitive action.

Technology

Can you imagine completing a workday without a computer? For most, it’s unfathomable. But for 30 years or more, plenty of offices housed only a few of these now-ubiquitous devices – none of them internet-connected. There was no cloud, no standard office software and certainly no smartphone in every pocket. Phone calls typically involved two secretaries coordinating to put their respective bosses on the line together.

There were no social media policies because for most of our time as a firm Facebook didn’t exist. Whether in a meeting, at lunch or taking a break, you’d have no choice but to interact with your work or your colleagues instead of looking at your phone. On the bright side, no cell phone meant no emails or texts. Vacations, evenings and weekends were utterly disconnected from work, unless your employer required overtime – which he could.

Printers have been around for most of HBP’s existence in one form or another, but in the beginning they were bulky and unreliable. So clearly, some things don’t change. We may have moved well beyond the mimeograph machine, but we haven’t given up the tradition of frustration at technology’s foibles.

The transition to the modern workplace environment hasn’t been easy for organizations or individuals, but the changes have been positive overall. If your business or nonprofit organization could use help anticipating and benefiting from the changes that affect your niche, reach out to the business advisory professionals at HBP. We understand how to help you stay ahead of the curve no matter where it’s leading.