Fast forward

 

Even with the rise of the personal computer as the essential office item, other technologies and social trends are also changing the landscape of the office with a major effect on the OP industry. In the first of this series on technology, we will be looking at mobility and the technology that is defining the office of the future.
The mobile office
The office environment has traditionally been tied to a fixed location due to a number of physical constraints. These include telephony access, fixed paper files, interaction with work colleagues and office equipment such as fax, printer, photocopier and stationery. The other important element is managerial control, with an unwatched worker a potential slacker.
With the cost of high-end desk space in international cities like London, Paris, and New York in excess of £1,500 ($2,630) per month, many organisations are taking advantage of mobile working practices that new technology provides.
The cost of office space is one reason, but other factors such as business continuity and staff retention are also important considerations. With topical news stories such as bird flu and terrorist outrages making the headlines, many organisations are putting into place contingency plans that will allow office staff to carry on working from home or an alternate location with minimal disruption to business processes.
New legal requirements such as the Work and Family bill in the UK and efforts of a number of US senators including Senator Lewis of Montana encourage teleworking. In 2004, a bill was approved in Washington to penalise those federal agencies not giving all eligible employees the option to telework in 2005. Further recent studies also show that tele and mobile workers are between 10-50 per cent more productive.
As Alan Denbigh, executive director of The Telework Association, comments: "New technology and the needs of modern businesses have promoted the need for a much more mobile workforce and the data we have suggest that this trend is going to continue to grow."
One of the enabling factors at the heart of this mobility drive is an advance in fixed and wireless voice and data technology. This ranges from wireless network connection built into laptops, to mobile phone and telephony services that allow both data and voice connectivity from any location.
According to Lesley Hansen, marketing manager for TeleWare – a provider of telephony services to approximately 25 per cent of the FTSE 100, the growth in mobile working provides many opportunities. "Many of our corporate customers are moving to more flexible working patterns for a number of reasons. The end-users who are now working from home or on the road need access to all the same telephony services, but without having to drastically change working practices."
Hansen cites the ability to keep the same phone number irrespective of location as essential. She says: "This could be via a mobile phone, main office, home office or even a hotel room."
TeleWare has a system that allows each employee to be issued with a unique phone number that can be registered to the nearest handset by the user. When a call comes in, the system automatically redirects the call without the caller being aware that the recipient is answering on a home office, mobile, hotel phone, client site or any other location. If the recipient is unavailable, the system can transfer the call to voicemail or even a colleague – just like a traditional PBX.
TeleWare targets larger companies in the UK such as Abbey National, PricewaterhouseCoopers or British Airways that typically have centralised locations and offer the same functionality across the organisation.
Off the shelf
Other firms such as Touchdown Offices are aiming at smaller businesses by offering an off-the-shelf managed service that provides similar office style telephone access as a fully managed service which users can sign up for over the internet.
As Touchdown Offices managing director Dean Parsons explains: "We are selling telephony services on a simple sign up-and-go type model via the internet, and we have a number of customers that are entirely virtual as in they don’t have a main ‘office’ but instead all staff work from home or non-fixed locations, but with the same virtual telephone system hosted by us to connect them all."
The must-have item for the agile worker is some form of computing resource. The latest numbers from analyst IDC Sales show that demand for notebook machines jumped 30 per cent in 2005 compared to only a 10 per cent increase in desktop PCs.
The other major growth area is in personal digital assistantas (PDAs) where recent figures from Gartner show that the western European PDA market grew 94 per cent to 1.3 million units in the second quarter of 2005. The region accounted for 37 per cent of worldwide shipments, up from 25 per cent a year ago. PDA shipments in the US totalled 1.4 million units, a 1.3 per cent increase while those in Asia/Pacific grew 24.7 per cent, with approximately 402,000 unit shipments.
The final piece of the mobility jigsaw is in mobile phones. Last year was a record one in terms of sales, with industry watchers Strategy Analytics (SA) recording some 810.5 million handsets shipped, up 19.1 per cent on the 2004 total of 680.5 million.
The logical conclusion is a breed of devices that combines computing power and voice communication in a small and easy-to-use portable device. IT industry heavyweight Microsoft is pushing the concept of a standardised ‘Tablet’ PC system that will provide a cross between a normal pen and paper solution and high-tech data and voice convergence.
A Tablet PC lets you use the pen directly on the screen just as you would a mouse to do things like select, drag, and open files; or in place of a keyboard to handwrite notes and communication. Unlike a touch screen, the Tablet PC screen only receives information from a special pen. It will not take information from your finger or your shirt sleeve – so you can rest your wrist on the screen and write naturally.
By interacting directly with the screen, rather than with a mouse and keyboard, Microsoft claims the PC becomes more comfortable and easy to use. There is no need to find a flat space on which to use your PC, nor does a vertical screen become a dividing wall between you and the person you are meeting. What’s more, a Tablet PC can even be used while standing up, which is useful for professionals on the move such as doctors, foremen and sales managers.
With all these mobile electronic devices, the Achilles heel is power and connectivity. Without power, all these devices are useless. Moving between countries throws unexpected challenges from different voltages, plug connectors and mobile data communication standards. Many vendors are now looking at supplying these mobile workers with everything from emergency chargers and single use batteries for PDAs and mobile phones, to portable foldaway keyboards that allow data entry and traditional typist speeds.
Suppliers like Pocket Solutions have capitalised on this mobility trend with a huge range of high margin products from cases, chargers, batteries and stationery holders. Unlike the mobile electronic devices themselves, the accessories have a much longer shelf life and can potentially increase in value as the original manufacturers stop making replacement parts and accessories.
For an office worker who may work one day a week at home or at another location, having to pack up chargers, keyboards and spare batteries is impractical. Instead, having a duplicate "travel set" makes much more sense and provides an opportunity for the vendors to sell product.
End of paper?
So is this new Tablet PC carrying, wirelessly enabled agile worker now completely removed from paper-based documents? Indeed not. Paper is still a $340 billion-a-year business and growing. For many office workers, the switch to digital still requires access to printed material, but created with mobility in mind.
A huge growth area is printing as a service via the internet. A whole range of documents from single large format colour items like posters or charts to complete booklets, sent electronically, printed remotely and returned by mail or courier within a day. One of the big innovators in this area is FedEx. A new service at FedEx Kinko’s uses a small downloaded application that automatically becomes a printing option on a computer, allowing documents to be printed at any of the 1,100 FedEx Kinko’s stores across the US. FedEx then allows customers to either collect the printed item or have it shipped anywhere in the world via its overnight delivery service. This service is rapidly expanding past the US, with new offices already opened in the UK, the Netherlands, Japan and China and more sites due to cover other major international business centres.
Even with the phenomenal rise of emails, paper documents are still essential for the making and notarising of contracts. As a consequence, nearly all offices still have the ubiquitous fax machine. Often the main purpose is for obtaining signatures on legal documents, as it is still incredibly complex to make a contract without a person’s signature. Both the US and Europe have emerging laws that provide for digital certificates, but the easiest method is still a human being signing a bit of paper. But as all things move electronic, companies like Topaz and Trodat are now creating the electronic equivalent of signing a contract.
Signatures captured with the Topaz system, for example, are legally binding because they meet or exceed the universally recognised ESIGN, UETA and individual states’ electronic signature guidelines. The system can be used with common software tools like Microsoft Word and the Topaz method binds the original biometric and forensic pen data directly into the signed electronic document.
This unaltered pen data can later be verified by a forensic document examiner using special software to determine whether or not the signature is authentic, giving users the security of knowing that forgeries and frauds can be detected. To prevent tampering, the signatures are encrypted to the document in such a way that if a document’s contents are changed the signature is rendered invalid.
The system is also highly portable and connects to standard laptops and other computing devices allowing signature capture irrespective of location. Trodat offers a similar item with its Trodat Digital Pen Word. This product enables the handwritten electronic signature of documents written in MS Word like orders or contracts at the point of sale. The major advantages of this product are that the signature can not be faked as a three-dimensional profile makes this impossible and the personal handwritten signature is perceived in the electronic world as it is on paper.
Trodat has also jointly developed, with Burg Informatics, the Trodat Digital Stamp – the only digital security stamp on the market. The product affixes a visible and verifiable stamp impression with the benefit for the mobile worker of being able to eliminate errands to municipal offices and make the handling of legal documents and forms easier.
But however ahead technology may be of the law, signatures are a complex area and the broad advice is that for important contracts or agreements such as wills, it is unlikely that an electronic equivalent will be suitable, especially when witnesses are required.
The growth of mobile or teleworkers is a social and economic trend that cannot be ignored. Empowered by technology, it will shape business processes and procurement over the next decade. According to a Gartner report, by 2008, 41 million corporate employees globally will spend at least one day a week teleworking, and 100 million will work from home at least one day a month. The highest proportion of these will be US workers, although Europe and particularly the Nordic regions have the most established teleworking culture.
For the supplier industry, Gartner analyst Caroline Jones highlights some key considerations: "Equipment vendors need to be aware of the huge potential market that teleworking provides. They should be willing to partner with operators and service providers in less developed countries, where budget may initially be very limited.
"The global teleworker population is dependent on equipment and services to provide either dial-up or broadband remote access, which is made secure by the use of firewalls and/or the use of virtual private network (VPN) software or hardware. Vendors operating in the access, firewall and VPN equipment markets are all relevant for this market as are the related national and regional telecom operators and service providers."
Innovative solutions such as those at FedEx Kinko’s, Topaz and Trodat blend the traditional requirements of the fixed office with the requirements of a more distributed and mobile workforce. Other vendors will surely find niches within this more agile business environment providing they recognise that mobility and agility is the key.