As Workers Go Mobile, Office Adapts

SUSAN BECKMANN used to have a corner office. Now she has a scooter.

Director of MCI Communications Corp.'s customer-accounts branch in Boston, she's mobile, like the 109 sales people she manages. "Here's where my office is today," Mrs. Beckmann says, pointing to a small area by a window. Tomorrow it might be a different space, or in another room.

Wherever she is, she just plugs in her laptop computer and puts it on a small "scooter" table with wheels. Her other mobile tools are a cellular phone and a two-way pager.

This office-on-the-fly in Boston is MCI's effort to adapt a work environment to a sales force that no longer needs a traditional office. And if these month-old digs work for MCI's sales force, similar set-ups may work for others. Indeed, the sales force sometimes brings customers here to evaluate the communications hardware, software, and services that MCI packages for businesses.

This is just one example of changes under foot in the American office, spurred by business people increasingly on the move and in touch electronically.

Since 1991, the number of telecommuters (people working at home for large employers or themselves) has grown from 5 million to about 11 million, estimates the Gartner Group, technology consultants in Santa Clara, Calif. Millions of people in sales and other professions now take a big chunk of their office on the road with them.

Companies save rent by not providing permanent office space to all these people. Yet many firms find they still have to provide some sense of corporate home. There are as many answers to finding the desired balance in the new concept of "office" as there are companies seeking it.

"Each company has its own sales fingerprint" - hence its own office needs - "geared directly to its own customers," says sales expert George Colombo. He is author of "Sales Force Automation" and also heads Influences Technologies, a sales consulting firm in Winter Springs, Fla.

MCI's rehabbed Boston office, opened at the end of January, is the prototype for 200 planned offices across the United States. Some 20 may open this year.

America's No. 2 long-distance telephone carrier, MCI has been diversifying into a number of data and communications areas. Its sales offices now also market "systems integration," tying together technology from various vendors for firms moving to electronic commerce.

The Boston MCI branch is called a Rally Center. "Here's where we rally together as necessary," Beckmann explains, adding: "And here we can walk customers through today's business-communication issues in a physical space."

The office's Hearth Space room (it has a coffee and lunch bar for warmth - no fireplace) projects boldly into the future. This is where Beckmann is working on this day.

It's an infinitely adjustable room with lots of telephone jacks and power outlets (some popping up from table tops), pull-down screens for visuals, whiteboards (for marker-pen presentations) on wheels with bulletin boards on the back, and movable partition screens to create areas of privacy.

If MCI chose, its sales people could work from home, shooting out to customers in person when necessary and keeping in touch with headquarters only electronically. Such an arrangement is called a virtual office, and there are hundreds of variations of the concept across the US.

MCI is trying to find a different balance, Beckmann says.

"Our operation is not a virtual office," she insists. "Virtual means not existing, while this is a place to come to and do collaborative work."

Here's MCI's organizational logic: Beckmann's sales people are out with customers as much as possible, selling, consulting, solving problems.

But they need an office home too, at least part of the time, top MCI management has decided. It believes the sales force needs a place to meet customers and potential customers on MCI turf occasionally.

Workers also need a place to train and to keep in touch with people in their own company, Beckmann says. A core staff of 25 comes into the Boston office every day.

The core staff has permanent space in the office. The mobile sales people don't. They have lockers where they store their belongings, in baskets stacked on small carts.

And when they are on the road? MCI mobile salesman Ted Purdy - no matter where he is - can do business at the spin of an electron. With his powerful laptop, a two-way pager, and a cellular phone in hand (not all at once, of course), he can look up current product prices from MCI's data bank, check inventory, or even hold a live video-conference for a customer to answer a question. An MCI expert at the home office might sketch an answer on a wired whiteboard, and it would be transmitted live to Mr. Purdy's laptop for the customer to see.

Purdy has one phone number that follows him everywhere he goes. During each day he lets the office computer know where he will be, and the computer patches all calls to the number he designates. If he's tied up, callers can leave a page or voice mail.

Don't try calling this nomad of the '90s a traveling salesman. That term is now a no-no, Mr. Colombo says. "People who don't want to tell their mothers they are in sales often end up with other titles on their business cards, like senior account manager."

Mark LeVell, president of TeLeVell, a sales-software firm in Milpitas, Calif., says firms with modern mobile-office technology provide "a smoothly paved highway" that lets workers "keep their eyes on the road."

"The process of evolving a new office does not end with having a new site," Beckmann concludes. "We are learning as we go along."

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