The Direct Connection

by Andrew Arrow (

Copyright 1996 Andrew Arrow. All rights reserved.

Commercial real estate is, for the first time, becoming an undesirable commodity. The once-lucrative office space in the downtown district of all major cities no longer holds a monopoly on accessibility. A worker, from his bedroom in suburban America, can be just as connected as his office counterpart in the heart of New York City. The need for a centralized population may soon be just a thing of the past. With more and more businesses setting up their workers at home via DCs (direct connections), we could be on the verge of a revolution.

In the past, the only way to communicate with coworkers was to face-to-face. Telephone conversations alone just didn't cut it. With a large number of people needing to be close together, in a limited space, there was only one direction to go: up. Thus, the modern skyscraper was born. The overhead involved in supplying every worker with his or her own office space in the building was, and still is, considerable. Businesses are now, however, finally seeing a less expensive (and in come cases, more productive) solution: send the worker home.

With lightning-fast email, chat rooms, and video conferencing (all from the comfort of the home), the worker is practically at the office. Because this is a direct connection, not just a 14.4 or even 28.8 modem, things can actually get done. Video phones flow smoothly with quality picture and sound. (Even at 28.8 kbps moving video is more trouble than it's worth.) With the DC the worker stays logged in throughout the entire day. Rather than logging in just to check email, then logging out, our at-home worker is notified the second new mail arrives. In effect, the business has found great new office space for the price of an Internet line; a virtual office, in effect.

Places like Terra Net and IQuest Network Services are providing DCs at affordable costs. A DC line can be installed for around $500, and leased for less than $250 per month. Consider all the benefits and you can see why businesses like these numbers.

Looking at this from business' point of view we can clearly see the reason for their excitement: greater profits. When you spend less money on office space, more money is left over for profits. Not only that, but some are arguing that working from a DC is actually more productive than working the traditional way. Without the distraction of the office water cooler and the extended lunch breaks, many businesses are seeing their workers thrive in their new settings.

From the workers' standpoint there is also much excitement. The DC means no more rush-hour commutes, no more early alarm clock wake-ups, and the possibility of working and still being a parent. Working parents who wanted to play a more active role in their children's lives used to have to choose between work and home. It was an all-or-nothing kind of decision. Setting up a DC in a central location in one's home can make a parent a very visible figure. Even though the parent is still working from nine to five, he or she is home, actively involved with his or her child.

Working via DC is here to stay. In fact, it is undoubtedly headed for tremendous growth. What does this mean on the grand scale of how we work? When downtowns become ghost towns, who will rise to the top of the new virtual order? Who will be left behind? Office politics will still be very much alive; only the tools will have changed. The dubious coworker who snoops through the office waste basket will instead be snooping through old file directories. Getting the boss' ear during lunch will be replaced with a strategically planned video phone request. Security will be more important than ever. Email messages and "chats" leave no handwriting to confirm an author's identity.

Less-than-technologically-inclined individuals may soon find their ignorance is no longer acceptable. Refusing to use fax machines and email is still a viable option in today's world. In a virtual office it would be tantamount to refusing to speak. Learning how to use the new technology is not the true barrier. There is nothing incredibly complex about using VOTs (Virtual Office Tools). The barrier is in the individual's refusal to want to learn. Older workers set in their ways may find the new technology threatening, and rightfully so. Who is going to be offered the jobs of tomorrow? Young kids fresh out of college with four years of email and video phone experience? Or older workers with valuable skills, but no VOT experience?

Where is all of this leading? A massive migration away from large cities? A completely de-centralized population? The answers to these questions are still anyone's guess. It seems unlikely that even if this DC trend continues, humans will abandon their need for centralized living. People like to congregate, not necessarily for business but, more importantly, for social reasons. Communicating with a DC will get a human only so far before he or she runs screaming to a bar or restaurant, seeking human companionship. Video phones are not quite the same as real human interaction, but suppose technology increases, as it is expected to, and we have the ability to simulate real human interaction through a DC. A holographic image, if you will, of other humans. The DC would no longer be practically as good as a face-to-face conversation; it would be exactly as good. Would people ever leave their homes?

Although the way of the DC is currently enjoying some modest success, we are a long way from complete virtual offices everywhere. Many of the business leaders making the decisions are those same less-than- technologically-inclined individuals. Regardless of the money saved on office space, they might argue that you lose your business' humanity: people interacting with people. After all, there's just no substitute for a hand shake...yet.

Andrew Arrow has a degree in Computer Science from the University of Pittsburgh. In May 1996 he relocated to the Los Angeles area and began his new job as a programmer for XP Systems.