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In the first of a five-part series on the ‘virtual office’ Julie-anne Sprague investigates moves towards mobile technology and a remote workforce.

IT’S a rare person these days who doesn’t have a mobile phone or at least an email account. These technologies have become such an integral part of modern life that a whole generation of children is now growing up knowing nothing of life before SMS and Play Station, the Internet and DVDs.

In more recent times the emergence of applications that enhance portable communications, such as the mobile phone and the laptop computer, is offering businesses a cost-effective way to increase productivity and customer satisfaction via the creation of a virtual office.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 20 per cent of Australians worked at home in June 2000. And according to telecommunication providers, this figure has increased since then.

Highway 1 business solutions manager Vince Costello said demand for broadband connect-ions at home was increasing.

“Prices have come down significantly. You can get affordable access and hardware and the ongoing costs are dramatically reduced,” he said.

“A lot of IT managers are put-ting ADSL access in for their senior staff to use it at home.”

Vodafone Australia director of business customers David Sweet said companies that were utilising mobile technologies were reducing their workers’ ‘dead time’.

“It creates better efficiencies in a lot of ways by saving time. It cuts down travel time and dead time,” he said.

“Globally, 24 per cent of workers in a business spend between one and three hours of dead time, or unproductive time, each day.”

Telstra managing director of wireless data and solutions Craig Cameron said companies adopting wireless technologies were gaining a competitive edge.

He said the traditional process whereby a technician started from the office to collect the day’s jobs and then returned to the office to file paper work was no longer necessary.

“We are taking that traditional process and making it an auto-mated process and making it happen in real time,” Mr Cameron said.

“For instance a technician re-pairing a photocopier can have online access to manuals without having to find a phone and call someone to get the information.”

According to Mr Cameron both the mobile phone and laptop computer were the beginnings of the wireless revolution, which has progressed to a point where cable technology had been made redundant.

“With the introduction of the Internet and dial up I could, in a remote location, plug into an access point in the wall and get access to the latest information,” he said.

“But that takes time and you have to be at a location that you can plug it [the laptop] into.

“Where we are at now with wireless technology is it enables you to have real time information but you get it without having to plug in. It’s faster and you can do it anywhere.”

The most common use of wireless technology is email and according to Mr Cameron the use of the technology can be enhanced with a range of new products.

He said a product released by Telstra late last year, the Black-berry, was a PDA designed specifically for email users that allowed employees to check emails on the train, on the weekend, and at times outside of office hours.

“There are a whole bunch of companies that are deploying them,” Mr Cameron said.

According to Mr Sweet wireless or mobile technology will grow significantly in the coming years.

“About 25 per cent of the world’s workforce is mobile, they are out of the office. More than 30 per cent of business are currently evaluating the use of mobile technology,” Mr Sweet said.

“More and more businesses will look towards the home working environment.”

A relatively new entrant to the Perth marketplace is Sydney based Simply Wireless.

Simply Wireless chief executive officer Desmond O’Geran said the company was building a presence in Perth to accommodate a growing trend towards wireless office setups.

“We are helping businesses set up wireless LANs [local area network]. Conceptually it is similar to the cordless phone. If you are in range you can use it and walk around,” Mr O’Geran said.

“Twenty years ago it was attached to the wall.

“For organisations such as universities, which have libraries, cafes and common areas, and there are lot of students with laptops, cabling can be a nightmare.

“Instead of plugging in to a point in the wall they can put a network card in their laptop and have access.”

But wireless technology does not necessarily mean state-of-the-art systems. It can be as simple as implementing software that enables the company to send out SMS messages.

Mr Cameron said this simple, and very cost effective, technology helped companies achieve greater efficiencies.

“Of the 19 million people in Australia, 13 million have devices that can send and receive SMS,” he said.

“A shop owner who needs to call in extra staff may ring a list of employees and, after an hour, find the five extra staff needed.

“But he could send an SMS to 50 staff members saying the first five people to respond have a job starting at four o’clock. It can be done in two minutes and get responses in 15 minutes. There is nothing that can deliver such an efficient service.”

But while the benefits of deploying mobile technology is seen as a good move by business owners, the Australian Institute of Management is keen to point out the importance of employers maintaining contact with their employees.

AIM WA executive director Patrick Cullen said that, while new technologies created greater flexibility, they must be employed carefully.

“Managers can now offer their staff the choice to work at home. There are more opportunities to blend work and family and it provides a fantastic opportunity for remote access,” he said.

“But you need to be careful that you don’t abuse the technology so you don’t have any face to face or human interaction.

“It is important to maintain contact with one’s employees.”

Mr Cullen said some forms of new technologies were helping eliminate routine and often boring tasks, thereby boosting employee morale.

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