LEXINGTON, Ky. -- At first glance, Ron Van Orden's office of the future looks a lot like his Chevrolet Celebrity.
Nothing special about his car. Mr. Van Orden, a salesman with American Telephone & Telegraph Co., doesn't even have a car phone. But a laptop computer and a portable printer have catapulted him into a new way of doing business. "In the course of a day I end up doing a lot more than I used to," he says.
AT&T; calls this concept the "virtual office." Its aim: Move sales people out of the office and in front of the customer. AT&T;'s push into portable computing is part of a general move by American business to change the way people work. In a Computerworld survey a few weeks ago, 86 percent of top corporate executives said that carefully targeted computer projects are re-engineering their workplace.
In the 1980s, businesses in the United States invested heavily in desktop computers with disappointing results. Office productivity barely moved up. Thus these companies are targeting computer investments a lot more carefully these days.
The technology shines best when the unexpected occurs. On a recent visit to one of Mr. Van Orden's customers, a catalog merchandiser, company officials suddenly asked for an AT&T; proposal to expand their telemarketing center. They needed it that day.
Before the virtual office, Mr. Van Orden would have had to gather the company's ideas quickly and -- back to the office to look through manuals to come up with a proposal. This time, he used his laptop to dial into one of AT&T;'s numerous mainframe systems.
So far, AT&T; says customer contacts are up an average 20 percent for the 2,600 salespeople with the technology. AT&T; is equipping its entire network services sales force -- 10,000 people -- with portable computers and printers. Although costs of the new technology run into the tens of millions of dollars, the company expects to recoup its investment within a year.
U.S. companies from sports-shoe manufacturers to printing firms have also begun to use the technology. The salespeople at Ciba-Geigy Corp., the pharmaceutical and specialty chemicals company, use laptops for such things as obtaining product and pricing information. A survey of senior information-systems executives last fall found that 44 percent planned to make major investments in that area this year.