It Was a Hard Day at the Beach

The virtual office redefines boundaries between work, home and play

P> In the Washington area there's an oft-aired, late-night TV ad aimed at the jobless and the putatively, personally injured. It ends with this liberating promise: "If you have a phone, you have a lawyer."

Now, with virtual office there's a liberating promise for the kind of people who usually are asleep when those ads air.

Hard-charging capitalism has a flip side to that law firm's nocturnal hustle: "If you have a phone -- and you're awake -- you should be working."

Welcome to the age of toll-free access to your own job. You don't even need an office anymore -- just a phone.

Total access to work at anytime, anywhere. That's the thesis behind the trend toward virtual offices and virtual workers, an expanding vogue in a time of business process re-engineering and downsizing across the government-private business spectrum.

This is a result not so much of technology, but of the will of managers to enhance worker productivity by instituting policies that let the virtual office follow workers across the globe.

"Virtual office" isn't quite the right term, according to Linda T. Risse, a management consultant at Synergy Planning Inc., a four-person think tank in Fairfax County, Va., that offers services in planning and management.

"Virtual work is what it is," said Risse. "Virtual work is that you work anytime, anywhere. It happens in your car, on the golf course, in a hotel room, in a restaurant and in your home. It's anyplace you do work. And some of it involves technology, and some of it doesn't. But it mostly involves phones."

How does a manager keep a firm hand on an employee when he's on his boat, car or plane? That's what people such as Risse are paid to figure out. Every case is unique, she said -- a mix of policy, personality and work habits.

"The reason I'm most commonly called in is to reduce costs," said Risse. "And the two highest costs for a corporation are the office space and human resources. It's easier to reduce office space than human resources." Risse added that reductions in office space usually go hand-in-hand with layoffs. "The usual way to reduce office space is to have a hiring freeze, but with virtual work you can reduce office space even while keeping staff levels at their current number."

So who are these virtual office workers?

Betsey Lee is a project manager for American Management Systems, based in Fairfax, Va. Lee lives in Nashville, Tenn. She telecommutes and supervises a computer applications specialist who lives in Pittsburgh. Weekly, Lee and the applications specialist rendezvous in Fairfax to meet with other members of their 15-member project team to work on integrating Lotus Notes into the larger AMS computer network.

This sort of telecommuting relationship is not uncommon at AMS, which is known for and has won awards for its policies for working mothers.

Lee, who has no children, has been a middle-management telecommuter for the last two years. "The positives are that it allows more flexibility in balancing one's personal life and professional life," said Lee, adding that the employee she supervises in Pittsburgh has a small child.

Lee said that a typical telecommuting day includes some sort of contact, whether via phone or e-mail.

"If the employee I supervise has something for me to review, she'll post something on e-mail and then give me a voice message," explained Lee. "I'll either post my e-mail comments or call her. It's a collaborative environment, where it's public within the Lotus Notes project team. It depends on the nature of the review -- whether we want to keep it to the two of us or whether we want the group to see it."

Does Lee feel out of the AMS loop at Fairfax? "Because of the technology that we've been able to deploy on the project -- Lotus Notes -- it allows those of us who telecommute to feel very much in the loop," said Lee.

Yet, like a full-time office environment, full- or nearly full-time telecommuting is not without its briars. "There are some days that I spend the whole day on the phone [at home], and I feel like going to the office. But most days, we're able to accomplish what we want to accomplish," said Lee.

Lee said the key to successful telecommuting is having facilities that enable workers to collaborate without being at the same location. "The fact that each of us sees each other weekly also helps," she added.

Getting the work done

Call it "virtual work," "virtual office" or "telecommuting" -- it's really the same thing: Getting the work done outside the physical confines of the plant.

Some big companies are throwing their weight behind the trend. Telecommute America, a Pueblo, Colo.-based public-private effort launched in 1995 to promote awareness and understanding of telecommuting and telework arrangements, counts among its founding members AT&T, the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. General Services Administration. Additional sponsors include Steelcase Inc., Mobile Office magazine and Working Mother magazine.

Telecommute America predicts that based upon its surveys, 25 percent more Fortune 1,000 companies will explore telecommuting for the first time in 1996. The surveys were done before the blizzards and flooding of the winter of 1995-96, and analysts believe that the slow trend toward telecommuting will get a boost following severe weather. (According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the number of major disaster declarations has increased as much as 43 percent in the past five years compared with the previous five.)

Susan Sears, AT&T district manager and telecommuting expert, said that at AT&T, the number of e-mail messages remained the same during the blizzard. "The unchanged volume of e-mail indicates that there was no loss in productivity despite workers' inability to travel to their work sites."

Many Washington-area federal workers telecommuted during the bad weather, said Faith Wohl, the General Services Administration's Work Place Initiatives director. And use of federal satellite work centers was up more than 50 percent during the January snowstorms.

What happened with federal workers during the blizzard of 1996 illustrates the point. On the first day, when furloughed workers were allowed back to their jobs, the deluge of snow froze out most -- but not all -- government workers. Workers checked in at "neighborhood centers" in outlying suburbs to get on-line with the main office.

For example, Hagerstown, Md., Winchester, Va., and Fredericksburg, Va., have such neighborhood centers. During the aftermath of the blizzard, the locals in those outlying suburbs worked in the neighborhood centers, while their federal colleagues remained shut in watching the aftermath of the blizzard on television.

"Thousands of work hours were put to good use that might have been lost otherwise," said Wohl. "Telecommuters who weren't previously scheduled to be at the telework centers when the bad weather struck went to them anyway rather than just stay home," she added. "As a result, they -- and their co-workers who were scheduled -- were productive despite the weather."

Consultant Risse pointed out that given that infrastructure is comparatively finite, virtual office, virtual work will get bigger and bigger.

"The algorithm is that we can't make more roads, and we can't keep widening roads," said Risse. "With virtual office and virtual work -- this is a way to get people off the roads. These neighborhood centers are not perks for federal employees."

Like many things that look great on paper, there are caveats to virtual work. To begin with, it's not for everyone. Risse said candidates for virtual work -- whether they do it at Disney World or in their spare bedroom -- must already be productive employees. "You give productive employees a quiet atmosphere and their productivity should go up."

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