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IT strides seen as double-edged sword


While advances in computing and broadband technologies are routinely credited for driving workers off congested highways and into home offices, a recent IT Forecaster report from market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., argues just the opposite: that advances in IT - primarily in wireless technologies - are making road, rail and air traffic congestion worse, not better.

According to IDC, the number of mobile and remote workers combined is expected to reach 37.8 million this year, climbing to 47.1 million by 2003. However, the number of mobile workers is growing 3.5 times faster than that of remote workers, weakening the positive effects teleworking has on the environment. For every worker who skips the office commute once a week to work from home, roughly three workers head out on the roads, connected to their main offices via cell phones, notebook computers and other devices.

IDC defines mobile and remote workers as those who spend at least 20% of their work time away from the office. Remote workers include those who spend four or more days a month at home working via a PC, and work extenders who work at home after-hours and on weekends. Mobile workers include mobile professionals, salespeople and independent contractors equipped with handheld devices and laptops, as well as field service workers who rely on data collection via laptops or handheld devices.

Why is the mobile user market eclipsing the remote user market? Industry observers point to the widespread use of cell phones, PDAs, two-way pagers and other smart handheld devices. They also say improvements in notebook technology, such as longer battery life, better display screens and lighter weights, have fueled the mobile market's robust growth.

Also contributing to the trend is the slower-than-anticipated growth of the remote worker base, blamed on a slew of factors, including the slow rollout of residential broadband services, the high cost of remote infrastructure development and support, security concerns, and resistance from both managers and workers. Managers are often reluctant to manage workers they can't see, and many workers fear they'll be considered "out of sight, out of mind" by their bosses.

The fact that most everyone is working also contributes to traffic levels, adds IDC analyst Stephen Drake, noting the booming economy's contribution to the problem. "The reasons why traffic isn't improving aren't necessarily all tied to the fact that everyone's mobile, but I'm sure it's not helping."

However, John Edwards, president of the International Telework Association and Council and a member of the Northern Tech Council transportation committee, strongly disagrees with the conclusions drawn in the IDC report.

"Technology is not driving people onto the roads," Edwards argues. "People are making their time more productive by using technology to be productive while they might otherwise not be productive."

Edwards also takes issue with the distinctions made by IDC between mobile and remote workers. "Mobile workers are remote workers - just another type of teleworking. They are not mutually exclusive."

However, Joe Owen, chief technology officer of XcelleNet, a company that develops remote and mobile device management applications, has witnessed the divergence of the two markets firsthand. Since the early 1990s, XcelleNet has sold products to both remote-site businesses such as branch offices, retail chains and financial services companies, as well as to firms managing legions of mobile workers. Today, much of the company's growth comes from the latter segment, augmented by strong sales to mid- and senior-level managers who need to stay connected to the main office.

"Executives are spending more time than ever traveling," Owen says. "We see the value of putting all employees, not just senior executives, out there with their various constituencies - partners, suppliers, whatever," he adds.

IDC's Drake agrees. "Face-to-face meetings are critical for doing business in the U.S. but even more so overseas. Here, you can pick up the phone and start a business relationship. But to do business in Latin America, you have to travel."

Even so, Owen believes the shift to casual remote working is inevitable and that for many, the home environment will become a natural extension of the office environment.

"Once people become more comfortable with broadband services, it'll dawn on them to skip the commute some days and work from home. But it'll be entirely driven by bandwidth," he says, adding that you can't replicate the office environment over a regular phone line.

Some days, when he can't afford the time it takes to commute to the office, Owen says he'll head downstairs to his home office and connect to XcelleNet's internal systems over his cable modem and VPN.

"There have been times I've gotten halfway through the day - still in my workout clothes - when I realize I'm still sitting there, e-mailing our European colleagues. And I say to myself, 'Hey, I'm not even going to bother to go in,' " he says.

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