The day starts with a wake-up call from your PC, reminding you of an 8:30 conference with your agency's district managers. You roll out of bed and say, to no one in particular, "Set up the connection to the video hub and start calling anyone not logged in by 8:25 a.m. Oh, and call Smith and ask him if he'd like to attend."

Before you shower, your PC establishes the video connection, makes the call to Smith and starts the morning's pot of coffee. By the time you get out of the shower, your PC tells you Smith won't be attending but would like a summary. You tell your PC to add Smith to the post-conference summary distribution list.

When you settle into your home office chair at 8:27, four managers are on screen, visible in their own split screen windows on your monitor. Two are in their agency offices, the other two in their home offices. Two other windows have "Will Return in 2 Minutes" posted in them.

You greet your managers and let them know there's been a slight agenda change. Your computer posts the new agenda you dictated in the car while driving home from work last evening, and it appears in yet another split screen, ready for comments. Two managers ask for hard copies, reach to take the page out of their printers, and the meeting is under way.

OK, maybe that won't happen in your agency next week, but it's not because the basic technology doesn't already exist. Voice recognition and affordable voice-activated control of home electronics is a reality. Ubiquitous access to network resources is also technically feasible, although moving seamlessly from office to car to home with no disruption may be a bit beyond the capability of most networks.

However, we can expect to see that kind of functionality becoming available to a general market in the next few years. What's more, trends that exist today are laying the groundwork for a dramatic redefinition of what it means to be "at work."

Born of Frustration

One key development track leading us toward what might be called the "virtual office" began more than 25 years ago, reputedly in a Los Angeles traffic jam. In that legendary traffic snarl, Jack Nilles, a rocket scientist working in California for agencies on the East Coast, invented a term -- "telecommuting." Since then, Nilles and others have researched and evangelized the concept of telecommuting and "telework," and the idea has definitely caught on.

According to a survey conducted by Cyber Dialogue, a New York-based research and consulting firm, 15.7 million Americans were telecommuting in mid-1998. For the purposes of the study, telecommuting was defined as "working at home for an outside employer during normal business hours a minimum of one day/month."

"The findings indicate that telework is a very dynamic trend closely related to the level of employment in the economy and the growing impact of computers and the Internet," said Thomas E. Miller, vice president of Cyber Dialogue.

A 1997 study by Miller indicated that 11.1 million people were telecommuting in that year, a 15 percent increase over a study done two years earlier.

"Many companies, both large and small, have discovered the benefits of allowing employees to work from home part of the time," Miller said at the time. "Growth of e-mail, voice-mail and the Internet, combined with a renewed emphasis on work results rather than workplace appearances, have encouraged managers to recognize that employees working part time down the road are no more distant than employees working down the hall. What matters most is whether or not the job is getting done."

Given a continuation of today's economic circumstances, Miller expects that telecommuting may grow to 18 million by the year 2000. While other studies have shown different numbers, they

David Aden  | 
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.