Technology Changing The Workplace

August 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The beaches of Grand Haven have long been a desirable alternative to the office on a July afternoon, but this past summer, a local ISP Ottawa Wireless made those beaches a practical alternative.

The nation’s first “hot city,” Grand Haven has wireless Internet access throughout its municipal limits and with some extra hardware, 15 miles into Lake Michigan. For some it was an opportunity for increased efficiencies, as ReMax realtor Denny VanHall was able to check prices and listings on the road. For others it was a chance to enjoy the summer months, as Web designer Rick Lubbers, principal of Hitspring Interactive, moved his office to his summer home, a 42-foot Chris Craft boat.

With the addition of a cell phone and possibly a briefcase for files, professionals in Grand Haven have found that the office’s boundaries have expanded far past their company’s location.

“It really is an amazing area of business opportunity and a business shift,” explained Keith Brophy, CEO of SageStone Inc., in Grand Rapids. “Mobile technology didn’t used to be around at all, or if it was, it was extremely expensive.”

“What’s happening now is that mobility has come of age so quickly that now you can go out to Circuit City and get the components you need to make your house or business wireless,” Brophy said.

“This infrastructure that used to be expensive and prohibitive or nonexistent is there automatically — and often for free.”

“We really believe that wireless technologies are as profound a change as the integration of the personal computer into the workplace,” said Bill Dowell, director of research for Herman Miller.

“The wireless technology allows work to happen not just on a workstation, but anywhere.”

Dowell believes the trend is both strong and inevitable.

He said Herman Miller is being challenged to respond to the latest culture shift which would allow a valued employee — the type to be given freedom to work where he or she chooses —many choices about where to work: at home, or in a coffee shop or food court. In Grand Haven he may opt for a beach or a boat.

Or they can go to the office.

Earlier this month, Ohio-based Sarcom implemented a real-time mobile office package throughout its sales and service divisions, including its 40-employee Grand Rapids branch.

Through a partnership with Spring, Sarcom is using Sprint’s PCS Treo phones for e-mail, phone, fax and Internet. Too, a laptop can be linked through the phone via Sprint’s PCS Treo.

“We’ll never have to say ‘Give me two hours to get somewhere and I’ll send you something,’” explained Mike Grayson, Sarcom’s Michigan enterprises service manager. “I can pull over and I’m real time. I can do transactions, I can e-mail.”

“This is a huge benefit for our sales force,” added Chris Sackett, Sarcom’s Michigan business development manager. “And when we’re talking to customers who are thinking of doing this in their enterprise, we already have experience with it.”

If the Sprint partnership is further extended, Sarcom will be able to pass on the one-stop mobile service to its customers. “This is a space we’re already in,” Grayson said. “We’re doing this work already. Some of our clients requirements are mobile wireless as well.”

The Sprint/Sarcom package is an example of the all-in-one thinking that has made the BlackBerry popular among corporate executives and hip-hop artists.

As cellular phones have done for years, the BlackBerry raises some new concerns over etiquette, like a Florida Congressman seen using a BlackBerry during a TV debate. But the most prudent questions surrounding the BlackBerry might not be in its etiquette but in its practicality.

“It’s a matter of what’s cool — and there are certainly people out there who are looking to get the latest and the greatest, trying to be on the cutting edge — vs. what they need to have,” explained Jenny Fanning, president of CPR. “Do you really need your BlackBerry when you’re sitting in a meeting for an hour poking you in the side telling you that you have another e-mail coming in?”

The real challenge is still being able to work away from the desk, Fanning explained, and devices like the BlackBerry might not be the best solution.

“You’re going to see real arguments between people whether the trend is going to be a one-size-fits-all device or smaller specialized devices,” said Charlie McGrath, creative services director for Structure Interactive, the company responsible for the Rosa Parks hot spot. “I am in the camp that falls with the specialized device, like the iPod.”

According to Jeff Tatreau, CPR senior business consultant, the only areas where complete real-time mobile access is currently cost effective is the medical field, law enforcement and JIT manufacturing.

For a traditional sales force or other professional, there are better solutions available. Warehousing and supply chain management were one of the first fields to adapt wireless, with efficiencies were immediately increased in picking and counting. The city of Grand Rapids’ parking violation checkers print parking tickets from a handheld wireless device. “Most of our customers are fairly targeted in how they deploy it,” Fanning added.

Likewise, few of CPR’s customers have networks that support the PDA, a device that has undergone a dramatic decline in sales in the past year. At most companies only top-level executives have them. For a small number of key employees, mostly CEOs, CPR has facilitated the use of company e-mail in PDAs.

A better solution for most, perhaps even better than the laptop, is the tablet PC. Similar to the laptop but with twice the battery life, the tablet is little more than a screen and stylus when the keyboard is folded in or detached. Easily manageable with all the amenities of a high-end laptop and similarly priced, the tablet also has the voice and handwriting recognition of a high-end PDA.

While there are many options to outfit the mobile professional — to even include a full and secure passenger seat workstation like that produced by Mobil Office Inc. of Grand Rapids — many barriers are found in network infrastructure and the back-end application.

As for network, CPR explained that few cellular customers can completely avoid coverage gaps, a major problem in rural areas. WLANs are not available widely enough to base a business practice around, and the wireless luxury enjoyed by Grand Haven employees disappears outside the city limits.

If there were not enough of a deterrent, security risks abound in setting up either a WLAN or a secure portal to allow home access to a company’s network. But when properly administered, basic security can negate all those risks.

This can also be expensive, but as Brophy explained, the prices to set up such a portal are quickly dropping as development tools become more sophisticated.

“There are a lot of advantages to not being chained to a desk,” Fanning said. “People have changed. They interact during the day and check e-mail at night. We have customers who are asking us to give them remote access from home or wherever. But they are also saying, ‘Now that I’ve got this technology, I want to perfect it.’”    

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