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'Virtual office' not yet common. (Business Briefs).

Much has been written in recent months about the "virtual office" and its ability to keep business going in the face of calamities, like the terrorist attacks. But just as videoconferencing has failed to gain widespread acceptance over the years, the virtual office is still more hype than reality, argue researchers at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To be sure, companies offering virtual office systems did prosper in the wake of September 11, and have made some converts. But the MIT researchers, who have been studying virtual office technology for three years, found that technology alone won't be enough to deliver on this virtual promise. Offices and other distant places where people work must be physically adapted to make the technology effective and accessible, and cultural and geographical factors -- from time zones to language -- must be more carefully considered. An even greater challenge lies in changing basic organizational ways and behaviors, says Janice Klein, senior lecturer and researcher at the Sloan School.

"Everyone is looking for the silver bullet, but we're trying to cross disciplines and integrate physical, technical and organizational issues that are otherwise only being dealt with piecemeal," Klein says. "We've found that people haven't really thought these issues through," adds her colleague Feniosky Pena-Mora, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The issues can be as basic, but critical, as physical layout and facilities. "People think that since the Internet has greatly reduced the time it takes to deliver information, virtual conferencing is automatically a faster way to do business," says Pena-Mora. "In fact, long and careful preparation is required to achieve an effective collaboration that effectively integrates digital and physical space. We must adapt spaces normally used for face-to-face purposes to be more supportive of remote or interactive applications."

Even if you solve such critical problems of technology and physical space in cost-effective ways, other obstacles hinder the full potential of virtual collaboration, says Klein. "You have to align every piece of the hierarchy -- from central administration to the local sites -- to support dispersed collaboration," Klein says. "Otherwise, employees in distant locations end up feeling that virtual interaction is simply disrupting their local work [and] adding more work to the local jobs they are already doing."

And if that happens, companies lose what the research team calls "mind-share": Distant employees may be virtually connected, but their heads may turn to tasks not on the virtual team agenda unless they feel the effort is truly integrated in ways that allow them to be more productive -- not less -- in meeting their local office responsibilities.
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Title Annotation:according to MIT researchers, industry still must address some issues
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
Previous Article:From the Editor.
Next Article:Riding out the weak economy. (Business Briefs).

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