Monday, May 19, 2003

Satellite offices can boost
productivity, slash costs

By Rachel Konrad
The Associated Press

MENLO PARK, Calif. - Amy Greene has a blatant disdain for her workplace. She shows up at the address on her business card only for mandatory meetings.

"I don't like going into the office," said Greene, a computer systems manager for Sun Microsystems Inc. "You just end up talking to people in the hallway. It's unproductive."

Such an attitude could get many employees in trouble.

But Greene's bosses applaud the 12-year Sun veteran for rejecting her assigned office across a traffic-choked bridge. She works instead at the company's leafy campus closer to her Palo Alto home.

Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman and chief executive, wants all 35,000 Sun employees to be prepared to abandon permanent desks in favor of flexible work stations and telecommuting.

Proponents of the idea say it is prototype of how millions of Americans will work within a decade.

McNealy has long thought that companies could boost productivity and slash costs by eliminating regular desktop computers and giving workers access to centralized machines.

In the past year, he has become a downright zealot, preaching the benefits of Sun's "iWork" program at industry conferences and pitching clients on the virtues of the gadgets and software Sun has developed to connect its employees.

Mobility fact of life

"Mobility is already a fact of life," McNealy wrote on Sun's Web site. "We're simply responding to the current reality."

Although critics, including some Sun employees, blast iWork as a morale-sapping gamble, the increased availability of high-speed Internet access at home has made telecommuting easier than ever.

Almost 32 million people telecommuted full- or part-time in 2002, an increase of 2 million from 2000, according to research firm Cahners In-Stat/MicroDesign Resources.

Numerous banks, government agencies, universities and companies have purchased Sun's "work force mobility" technology.

AOL Time Warner recently bought Sun's technology for a call center. Several public universities in Canada have iWork-like programs for professors and other mobile employees. Kodak, British Petroleum and Citibank have studied iWork and are considering it for some workers.

IWork is based on the idea that few employees need file cabinets or bookshelves to store data that can reside on central computers, or servers.

With secure access to servers, workers don't need fragile laptops, desktop computers or even conventional desks.

Sun gives workers microchip-embedded smart cards and has installed computer monitors and card readers at thousands of workstations, even in the company cafeteria in Menlo Park.

IWorkers check e-mail and work with documents wherever they can find an access point - at home, 93 flexible offices and nine "drop-in centers" in urban areas around the country.

Sun began pushing flexible work stations in the mid-1990s, when executives determined 35 percent of employees were telecommuting, visiting clients, on vacation or otherwise not using their desks at high-rent campuses in Santa Clara, Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

The company has spent $3 million per year since 1997 to convert 93 offices, eliminating 7,400 conventional desks.

Sun expanded iWork after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when many companies crafted emergency response plans to reduce reliance on a single building. More recently, employees in Asia moved to drop-in centers or worked from home to avoid SARS-infested high-rises.

Savings $50M last year

Sun estimates it saved $50 million last year and ultimately could see annual cost savings of $140 million.

But iWork doesn't work for everyone, notably factory employees or product testers who have to toil in the same place each day.

And although employees enjoy the flexibility to work from home when kids are sick, several engineers said they missed the spontaneous brainstorms and "nerd bonding" over lunch or informal meetings.

"Humans were designed to communicate and be affectionate and break bread together," said David I. Levine, a professor of organizational behavior at University of California, Berkeley. "It's going to take a long time to figure out how to break bread over the Internet."

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