More than a decade before the term PDA joined the common vernacular, Earl C. Joseph predicted businesspeople would carry "a portable electronic communications-like appliance, cast onto a piece of highly circuit-integrated silicon, which gives to an individual via a machine access to office-related information activities that now require going to a physical office or building."
Joseph was part of the long-range planning for the Sperry Univac Division of Sperry Corp., which merged with Burroughs Corp. in 1986 and became Unisys. He made these forecasts for "The Book of Predictions," by David Wallechinsky and Amy and Irving Wallace.
He also suggested there would be " ... computer appliances which are portable and which are far more capable than present-day calculators that allow an individual to have access to societies' knowledge for real-time application to assist and amplify an individual in whatever he/she is doing."
That sounds eerily like Internet-accessible devices.
Of course, predicting the future is never easy. Joseph also predicted a "micro-miniaturized mobile farm factory," a machine that turns a "mature harvest into final packaged and palletized products."
OK, so technology hasn't progressed to the point where harvesting machines are factories on wheels, but it has given individuals the ability to take their offices with them. You are no longer tied to a physical space -- you can accomplish everything you do behind the desk while you are sitting on the beach.
Most business owners aren't ready to rip up their leases and send their workers out into the world where they'd communicate wirelessly through gizmos that look like they were stolen from the prop room for the next Star Trek series. Besides, customers still like the security of a bricks-and-mortar presence.
Most businesses can't forgo the physical space, but that doesn't mean they can't join a virtual office revolution.
Workers may need to spend at least a portion of their workdays in the office, but that doesn't mean they want to be bound by wires plugged at one end into a computer and at the other end into the wall. Not every employee does his or her best work between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
A laptop computer allows the flexibility to work when the inspiration strikes. And employees may not want to work alone.
"They're collaborating more," says Bob Winther, president of Canton-based Morris Office. "They're not just always working at their desk. They might be taking their laptop or their stuff to another station. Or they might be sitting at a table with two others."
But even cooperative work will fall by the wayside if it's inconvenient. If two employees are going to collaborate, they both need easy access to outlets.
"They want access to a lot of desk top or desk height power and cabling," Winther says. "For laptops, they want to be able to plug in pretty quick. They want to not have to crawl under the desk to hook up."
When salespeople return from the road with orders already entered in the computer, they want to input them as easily as they sync their Palm Pilots. That is where a docking station comes in.
"We used to think that desktop access was just kind of a convenience, but it's getting more and more important," Winther says.
The office hotel
The sales team spends 90 percent of its time on the road. Why are you paying for space so underutilized? The latest trend is hoteling.
"(Employees) share a work surface with a lot of other people," Winther says. "They have a common workstation. They have a cart with their personal stuff in it that they lock up. What we've found is a lot of the better ones have wireless telephones, so they can set up anywhere they want."
The office has undergone a transformation. It's no longer defined as the desk, chair and cubicle wall. The office is the wireless phone, the laptop and the individual.
"What we've seen is less of the real, completely dedicated stations, the traditional office," Winther says. "It's headed to a more private enclave where you take your laptop and you work there. You still have someplace where you have some privacy. There's not quite as much dedicated space."
The AAA Ohio Motorists Association implemented a number of these strategies before building its Independence-based headquarters. The most important thing it did was ask those involved in the daily operations what they needed.
"We had a lot of experience," says Michael Zbiegien, managing director of district offices. "We sat down with department managers when we were laying out the offices, on what they felt they were going to need for their work unit to work together. Each department manager had feedback into how their office areas were laid out."
But no matter how much technology changes the amount of time spent in that physical space, Zbiegien suggests making sure that employees are comfortable when they are in the office.
"We use a lot of glass in the building to bring in natural light and then use partitions with glass to let that light to flow throughout the building -- to make it very comfortable, very warm for the associates," he says. "(We use) various heights of partitions, depending on the environment that is needed to give the associates in their workplace a certain amount of privacy, as well as in our service areas, giving our clients the privacy that they need to handle their business.
"People traveling don't need to have other people know what's going on in their lives. It's something that's worked out very well for us." How to reach: Morris Office, (330) 499-1030; AAA Ohio Motorists Association, (216) 606-610
Daniel G. Jacobs (email@example.com) is senior editor of SBN.