Virtual office is gaining steam

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."


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Telework's rapid rise

Can federal trademark attorneys work from anywhere? "Right now, the answer is, 'No,'" said Deborah Cohn, group director for the Trademark Law Office at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "They can't work from a hotel room or from under a beach umbrella."

But Cohn didn't rule out such flexibility for the future. "We're always looking to make this program better," she said.

Telework is such a popular program at USPTO that trademark attorneys usually stay on a waiting list before getting the opportunity to work at home, Cohn said.

As many as 150 USPTO trademark attorneys work from home, which is 56 percent of all who are eligible. By May, the number will increase to 175, or 65 percent of eligible trademark attorneys.

The program, known as Work at Home, has become especially popular as real estate prices in and around Washington, D.C., have soared during the past several years, Cohn said.

Trademark attorneys who telework can relocate 50 miles or more from the nation's capital and buy a house for less money.

The work-at-home attorneys have also saved money for the agency, Cohn said. By letting a substantial portion of their trademark attorneys become teleworkers, agency officials have saved $1.5 million a year on rented office space, she said.

From their homes, the USPTO attorneys can gain access to trademark databases they would use in the office, Cohn said. A Citrix MetaFrame virtual private network provides network security. A random number generator creates secure one-time-only passwords for attorneys to gain access to the trademark databases.

Trademark attorneys in the telework program are required to come into the USPTO headquarters office once a week. On that day, they work out of a suite of headquarters offices, known as "hotel" offices, that they reserve in advance.

The rule requiring one day a week in the office applies even to three trademark attorneys who have moved well outside the Washington, D.C., area, Cohn said. One lives in Boston, another in New York City, and a third in Harrisburg, Pa.

Nora Buchanan-Will, a trademark-examining attorney who works from her home in Frederick, Md., 65 miles from USPTO's office, said she loves working at home. She also likes to imagine having a house at the beach, for example, from which she could work in the summer. "But I consider that greedy on my part," she said, adding that "whatever you write in the article, don't say she's happy, except if she were on a beach in Waikiki, she'd be happier."

Buchanan-Will, who has three young children, said her productivity — measured in terms of the number of trademark applications she processes in an hour — has improved since she stopped commuting 65 miles to reach the office every day.

She is also more fit. "I would be almost asleep at the wheel at times when I had to go in all the time," she said.

Trademark attorneys are eligible for the Work at Home program after working at the agency for about two years and receiving good performance reviews from their supervisors.

The productivity of trademark attorneys who work at home "is at least as good as productivity at the office," Cohn said, citing a comparative study that agency officials conducted when they began the telework program in 1997.

"Our goal," she said, "is eventually to have everybody who wants to telecommute — and is in an eligible position — to be able to do so."

— Florence Olsen

Virtually there

The experience of being a virtual office worker could change as secure collaboration services technologies become more commonplace.

A variety of companies sell such services. One is Viack, which offers its hosted collaboration service on a General Services Administration schedule contract. Company officials say the technology is ideal for federal telework programs. Service fees are based on a concurrent use license.

The equipment required for the hosted collaboration service include:

  • End-user hardware — Desktop or laptop computer, headset, Web camera and broadband Internet connection (need 256 kilobits/ sec to transmit video with sound).
  • End-user software — Via3 software for Microsoft Windows 2000 or XP, available for downloading from Viack's Web site.

Support for the following is included in the service:

  • Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 certification and Advanced Encryption Standard encryption of all components — audio, video, data and instant messages — while in transit and stored on disk.
  • Desktop computer videoconferencing and collaboration, including sharing of documents and applications.
  • Secure instant messaging and presence detection using Session Initiation Protocol. Presence detection discovers when and where others on your instant messaging contact list can be reached.
  • Internet-based telephone calls.
  • Ideal application: Ad hoc virtual meetings with two or three people participating.

— Florence Olsen

NEXT STORY: Committee approves review bill

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