How would our workplaces have adapted if the pandemic had hit a mere 30 years ago, in a pre-Zoom world?

Let’s assume for a minute that it’s 1991 and COVID-19 or a similar virus has broken out, resulting in a pandemic. As this pandemic quickly takes hold, government bodies and medical experts — as they will do in 2020 — ponder immediate and widespread quarantining, which has a potential impact on millions of workplaces. But there is no Zoom, no Microsoft Teams. No Slack, no Facetime, no Webex.

Interactive or digital technology like that was years away from being invented, debugged and commercialized, so how would business have carried on? What choices would likely have been made?

Where we were then…

Just to recall, in March 1991:

  • There were no clouds or data systems accessible by leaders or team members;

In sum, it was a world of DOS commands, first-generation laptops, 40 MB hard drives and rudimentary forms of email. Even a few typewriters could be found on desks. It was a decidedly non-digital workplace built around a world of paper — we had stacks of hard copy kept in file cabinets and desk drawers and we moved them in and out of storage in “banker’s boxes.”

While speaker buttons on some phones existed in 1991, hosted audio conference calling was in its nascent stage, had often unreliable connectivity and it would be another year before the first version of the now-ubiquitous Polycom conference call phone would be on the market. Call-in conference lines were primarily the stuff of Wall Street analysts and quarterly earnings calls as well as some global corporations that needed conference calls to bring together parties from their far-flung empires.

Is the world of work in 1991 coming into focus?

While initial forms of computer-based-training (CBT) were around, there were no “on-line” classes since, well, there was not much of anything on-line. CBT was largely a 1-on-1 self-paced activity with a learner viewing a computer screen with content from a disc. The word “webinar” was years away from even being coined.

Work From Home (WFH) or telecommuting as it was called then, was still just an experiment for most jobs, and the telephone was the technology that enabled this to happen. Fax machines were getting very popular in business although they were relatively expensive for home use, were slow by today’s standards and were primarily stand-alone machines.

I don’t want to paint a picture that in 1991 we were drawing on cave walls at work and using sticks and stones to create prehistoric spreadsheets. The technology of the time was miles ahead of what it was just 10 years prior to that. I know that first-hand, as I was a member of the workforce in 1981 as well as in 1991. But many of the technology enablers for the workplace we have come to take for granted and which served us in the current pandemic had yet to be invented or in some cases even imagined.

So how would we have coped in 1991 without the technology we have in 2021, as imperfect as it?

Conducting work via videoconference in 2020–21 has surfaced numerous challenges to the ways we interact; to the ways we build trust and collegiality; to the ways we conduct business generally. It’s been a massive workaround that many of us and our organizations were pushed into without warning and we had to figure a lot of it out as we went along. There have been successes, there have been failures. As difficult as it’s been in 2020–21, even with the gadgetry we have now, how would we have likely managed a large-scale and lengthy shutdown in 1991?

The truthful answer is that nobody really knows, other than to conclude that the machinery of commerce would have been far more gummed up than in 2020–21. One can speculate and conjure up “what-if” scenarios and Man in the High Castle-like storylines about what might have happened with a 1991 COVID-like pandemic but there’s not much precedence to guide us. Thankfully.

The last true pandemic that caused widespread shutdowns was the 1918–19 flu which infected roughly one-third of the world’s population (the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic did not result in massive shutdowns, at least not in the U.S.). But even so, the business and school shutdowns of 1918–19 did not rival those of 2020–21. Why?

Several factors differentiated that pandemic from the current one and therefore reduce the opportunity for scrutinizing lessons learned and projecting what might have happened in a 1991 pandemic. There was intense pressure at the time to keep the post-WWI economy running, so many businesses continued to try to operate without shutting down. According to author John Barry, who wrote perhaps the definitive book on that pandemic ( “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History “), while most businesses tried to continue operating, absenteeism was high. Productivity, quality and morale would have certainly taken a hit.

Another difference with the 1918 pandemic has to do with that particular strain of flu. While extremely deadly, it would reportedly burn through a community in 6–10 weeks instead of the far more extended infection duration of the COVID 19. Therefore, if a 1991 pandemic would have been more like COVID-19 than the H1N1 “swine” flu we are left with little upon which to build some data-driven inferences about what 1991 would have looked like. So, we are back to conjecture and speculation.

Here are my conjectures and speculations.

Speaking as Captain Obvious, I take the position that there would have been far greater disruption to the workplace than there has been in this pandemic simply of the lack of enabling technology 30 years ago. WFH simply would not have worked and businesses would have had two choices — require people to come into the offices and factories and risk getting the virus or drastically reduce operations or shut down altogether until things got better.

As with this pandemic, the hospitality industry — hotels, restaurants, leisure — would have been hit hard, as technology is not much of an intervening factor for operations in that sector, be it 1991 or 2021. Also as with this pandemic, the technology “deficit” would not have likely had much impact on the healthcare industry since so few of those jobs are WFH and require employees and leaders to be at the worksite.

In 2020 many businesses made an immediate pivot to WFH but one of the reasons that occurred is because we were able to. It was an imperfect embrace of imperfect technology, but as the old saw suggests, “necessity is the mother of invention.” And we already had a number of inventions that made the migration possible even if it was not in a planful and orderly sense. In many cases, it was akin to parachuting out of a malfunctioning airplane and learning how to operate the parachute on the way down. We were to exercise the option of jumping because we had the technology — the parachute.

The current pandemic accelerated an inexorable trend about how business and learning are conducted and that acceleration could not have occurred in 1991 because the technology foundation was not yet in place. Widespread WFH could not have been successful in 1991 even if there were bold attempts at trying to make it happen. Jumping out of an airplane without the enabling technology (parachute) would have resulted in a very bad outcome, regardless of the will to survive the jump. We would have had to take our chances on staying with the airplane that was under stress.

Speaking once again as Captain Obvious, I can state that there is never a good time for a global virus. But at least in 2020–21 we had some technology that enabled us to create and execute a Plan B for commerce and the world of work, as well as for the world of education, a Plan that would have been out of reach in 1991.

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.

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