Virtual office is gaining steam
Are federal office buildings the best places to get the job done?
- By Judi Hasson
- Mar 11, 2005
The office of the not-too-distant future won't be a government cubicle with moveable walls. And the only alternative won't be a home office or a drop-in site set up by an employer.
For government and industry workers, the office of the future will be wherever they want or need it to be. With handheld computers, wireless networks, Web conferencing and encrypted virtual private networks, an office can already be almost anywhere.
"My office is right on my hip," said Jeffrey Pon, deputy director of e-government initiatives at the Office of Personnel Management, pointing to his Research in Motion BlackBerry.
"The office for many people is still primarily the work space, but the list of other work areas keeps growing," said Gil Gordon, a New Jersey-based consultant on telework and alternative work spaces.
Some occupations are well-suited for a virtual office, such as health and meat inspectors, tax monitors and census enumerators. But for many federal workers, a virtual office is not yet a viable option, said Eric Reichert, vice president of Sun Microsystems' iWork Solutions group. But he added that virtual offices are inevitable.
Before employees work off a local network, federal managers need assurance that their hub will be protected. Security devices allow them to monitor network activity, no matter where users may be, Reichert said. Several vendors sell technology for managing virtual office security
Virtual offices will be part of the future workplace for several reasons, said Chris Michael, a technology strategist at Computer Associates. "The most obvious one is that you don't have to have a cube in an office building somewhere."
But virtual offices also raise some difficult questions, particularly about security, he said. "We don't want to turn our professional workers into little [information technology] departments," Michael added. "It's not their job, not their strength. Those things need to happen behind the scenes for them, such as automatic delivery of software patches and updates."
The Census Bureau is one of the federal agencies leading the virtual office trend. For the 2010 census, bureau officials plan to deploy 500,000 to 600,000 workers equipped with handheld computers to go door to door counting people who do not respond by mail.
In addition to collecting data, Census officials hope to verify the quality of data by using handheld computers with automated mapping capabilities, said Arnold Jackson, assistant director of the decennial census.
Workers in the field could transmit encrypted data by modem or a wireless connection to a central location, and they would never need to be inside a government office unless a problem arises. "There are a lot of benefits," Jackson said, "including mobility, speed, the time to get to the house, the freshness of the data."
Officials may issue a request for proposals in June, he said, adding that government officials might need to spend $300 million to $400 million to acquire the best technology for the census.
For a decade, federal officials have been promoting telework as one way to
reduce traffic on highways and roads in and around Washington, D.C. Although advocates of telework say the idea is becoming more popular, government officials say they are studying how and why corporate workplaces are evolving more rapidly.
"By 2010, corporations will have virtual teams working on projects," said Wendall Joice, director of innovative workplaces at the General Services Administration. "You will have people working at home, in the field."
Mobile workers will be a piece of the overall puzzle, but the challenge will be to provide workplace services and infrastructure, Joice said.
In some places, such services are already provided, said Joseph Hungate, assistant inspector general for IT in the Treasury Department's Inspector General for Tax Administration Office.
Hungate supervises a team of people who perform audits and investigations along the East Coast. Most of the employees do not have desks. They can reserve space temporarily at government offices, but most of them collect data, encrypt it and send it to a central office.
"We don't have any hard evidence that [virtual office work] improves productivity," Hungate said. "But we have soft evidence that productivity is high." These work arrangements will be pervasive in the coming decade, he said.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials send workers with tablet PCs to conduct field inspections, which eliminates the need for paper, said Andrew Brown, a safety compliance engineer with NHTSA.
"If you are at a testing lab in the Midwest and you are traveling 80 percent of the time, it doesn't make sense to be anywhere else but the Midwest," Brown said.
Mobile workers at NHTSA started with laptop computers, but they needed to find a stable desk, Brown said. Now, safety inspectors can use tablet PCs while walking around.
"Originally, we were using paper forms, but that became prohibitive because of the amount of the transcription," Brown said. "It started with paper going away and, [eventually,] everything becoming electronic."
Federal officials and think tank scholars continue to explore the idea of a new workplace. But many managers remain skeptical about the virtual office concept. Workers need to be part of a community, engaging in daily interactions with colleagues, said Dan Matthews, the Transportation Department's chief information officer.
"People want to be connected with the folks in their office," he said. "It's not so much that they need to come in to do paperwork, but they need the sense of community."**********