Pre-COVID Digitization of the Workplace

Reading John Gans’s excellent history of the National Security Council, titled White House Warriors, I’m struck by a short passage about Susan Rice’s sense of nostalgia for the 1990s. There are so many other quotes from this book to highlight the development of this institution and how it has impacted the way America wages war, but Rice’s first impression of how the NSC changed from her time as a youthful staffer in the Clinton administration to her return as President Obama’s National Security Advisor in 2013 stands out. Gans writes:

Upon her return to the NSC, Rice was heartbroken to discover the NSC had lost its “intimacy and collegiality.” The sheer number of staffers and the overreliance on email and desktop video-teleconferences made meetings rarer and deliberations far less personal.

This made me think of the major transformations of the workplace today. Many white-collar professionals work mostly from home, attending meeting after meeting via video, and I hear similar post-COVID laments. Yet Rice’s anecdote was a decade ago.

Video conferencing might have been more common before COVID than we remember. The impact of the pandemic may have skewed our cultural memory of the timing of these changes. Of course, COVID had a big impact on disseminating the practice of remote meetings to the point of ubiquity, but there was enough of a technological transformation in the two decades before for the changes from 2001 to 2013 to make such an impression on Rice.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.