VIRTUAL OFFICES: A PRELUDE TO VIRTUAL CITIES

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I have seen the future, and it's in Cranford, N.J.

Cranford, dear readers, is the site of IBM's new virtual office, where employees from five scattered New Jersey locations have been consolidated at a refurbished warehouse. Instead of using 400,000 square feet, IBM now has 100,000, all on one floor.

My colleague Susan Johnston, who heads our computer operations, and I journeyed to Cranford the other day to see the revolution for ourselves. My first impression: It was big (sprawling even), it was quiet, and it was empty.

And that's the idea, of course. Most IBM reps were on the road, or visiting customers, or at home. They've been equipped with IBM ThinkPads, mobile phones and beepers so they can conduct business most times away from the office.

That's why the warehouse was so empty. After one year, the experiment has worked even better than was expected. IBM projected, quite conservatively, that four people, at various times, would occupy one cubicle. As it turns out they could have figured that six people could share a cubicle.

IBM doesn't want its people to become too attached to their surroundings, which was a culture shock for most employees. Although they're never assigned the same cubicle, at first they were grouped together by industry units, such as pharmaceuticals, communications, etc. (that's the way IBMers market). But now they're given cubicles on a random basis.

Reducing costs and improving productivity were the driving forces behind the "workforce mobility" program. Customers wanted IBM proposals on the spot, instead of waiting for sales people to go back to the office to get further information. Now, because their laptops are plugged into the mainframe, they can get prices, delivery dates and such immediately.

In the interest of accurate reporting, let me say that the warehouse quarters isn't completely empty. About 150 support people show up everyday, and of the 600 sales and service people, about 20% are occupying space at any one time.

Interestingly, all of the stuff at the Cranford facility-including cubicles, lunch tables, even art work-were brought from other IBM locations. As our guide Vicki Pulicicchio, added, the paint on the pipes and heating ducts was new.

IBMers are generally infused with a strong work ethic. So their new freedom caused some guilt pangs-when, for instance, they were working at home and they took time off to walk the dog.

There's no question that IBM's mobile workforce idea can work at other companies where the sales force and others need to be close to their customers. At our company we're starting to equip sales people with the tools to communicate with their offices when they're on the road. Whether or not we'll eventually evolve to a virtual office we can't predict. In the meantime, we're not anxious to sign any long-term leases.

I can't help wondering what will happen to all the high-rise office buildings across the U.S.? Will virtual offices eventually lead to virtual cities?

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