Sat, 29 Mar 2003

The virtual workplace, take it or leave it

Vishnu K. Mahmud Contributor Jakarta

We always hear the motto, "working smarter, not harder", yet it seems to be seldom performed.

Many of us must attend numerous meetings, appointments and discussions to exchange ideas and information. The problem is, these usually short meetings are held across town. For a sprawling and congested metropolis like Jakarta, getting from point A to point B can easily translate into two hours of travel time, if not more.

Why fight through traffic if you only need to update your client about the project's status? Or gather information? Is a 20-minute face-to-face meeting really necessary -- not to mention the commuting time from your office to the meeting site?

Why not use today's technology instead? There are many solutions that the active businessperson can use in order to save time and increase productivity.

Considering the heightened fears of terrorism and the war in Iraq, international business travel has decreased substantially. However, this should not paralyze companies from making deals. There are an abundant number of technological tools that can be used to save both time and money -- it's just a matter of getting people to use it, to the benefit of all.

Perhaps the oldest method is the conference call. Meet your client with the help of a landline or cellular phone. There are many specialty conference call telephone units, such as Polycom's SoundStation -- check out -- that can effectively capture voices from across the room and deliver it to the receiver.

Conference calls are perhaps the easiest way to conduct long- distance business, since it can be made at any place and anytime, wherever you or your client may be located.

Video conference calls are available, but a bit tricky. For optimum quality, you would need high-powered equipment along with state-of-the-art connectivity, either analog or digital lines. As this is a rather high investment, there are only a few services in Jakarta -- dubbed business centers -- that offer temporary office space with Internet and video conferencing connections. This option may be more ideal than sending a team overseas to meet a client, although you may have to consider the costs, as it will definitely be more expensive than a regular long-distance call!

Virtual meetings can now be arranged over the Internet with programs such as Microsoft's Netmeeting or simple messaging applications such as Yahoo! Messenger. There are some corporate versions of these applications that are applicable to companies that have many offices scattered throughout the globe.

The software can be secured using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), to allow employees in different offices -- and perhaps different countries -- to transfer and share data as if they were on the same network. You can also use these applications to discuss documents with clients in real time, provided they use the same software. Some of these products can even offer video conferencing capabilities along with shared whiteboard facilities which, of course, depend on the power of the computer and the speed of the network server.

Finally, there is e-mail. The workhorse that has practically replaced the fax machine, e-mail can be used to discuss and share data with clients, co-workers and supervisors, allowing them to review and approve projects. What's more, e-mail can also be used as "evidence" that work for a particular section has been completed and is waiting authorization. It is not your fault if the project is delayed because your client has yet to give his consent. The bottleneck is in his Inbox!

These tools are available, but are seldom used effectively! With all the information technology (IT) hardware available, there should be no reason to waste time in traffic for a short meeting. Granted, not all appointments can be handled this way, as presentations, sales pitches, crucial decisions and group discussions should be conducted at physical meetings.

Some people still value meeting in person, as they would like to see the facial expressions and body language of their associates to truly determine what they are saying. Video conferencing could, ,perhaps help in this case as the applied technology is constantly improving and getting more affordable.

The point, though, is to use technology effectively to make sure your time is not wasted. Many people may be wary of using the latest IT tools, as it does require additional interaction with machines, rather than people. However, companies should calculate the costs in lost man-hours for an employee to go to an off-site meeting and return after battling through rush-hour traffic. They should also consider that implementing new IT services could actually save money in the long run.

Is the time spent behind a bus in a traffic jam on Jl. Sudirman, downtown's main thoroughfare, worthwhile to you? Help yourself and urge others to use the available IT tools effectively, because those who don't catch up with the times get left behind.