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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : CHALLENGES OF THE WORKING LIFE : ON THE JOB : OFFICES WITHOUT WALLS : Cellular Phones, Laptop Computers and Other Gadgets Mean Business Can Be Conducted Just About Anywhere

September 18, 1988|BARRY STAVRO | Times Staff Writer

The phone line was crisp and free of static when James Webb answered. It was late morning and his production line was humming. "Prices are up now. When prices go up you get a little bounce in your step," he said.

Webb was speaking on a cellular phone in the cabin of his Ford tractor. Spread across the horizon lay his family's 1,000-acre farm just outside Albany, N.Y., with 12 workers harvesting sweet corn.

Two years ago, Webb decided that he was missing too many orders from grocery stores. Even if somebody was back at his house to take a call, they'd have to drive a few miles into the fields to find him, then he'd have to drive back. Or he might miss the call entirely.

"There was always a big lack of communication in the field," he said. So Webb plunked down $2,000 for a cellular phone and had it hooked up in his tractor. Now if a call comes in around quitting time, say 11 a.m., he keeps the pickers on a bit longer to get extra orders out that same day.

When he bought the phone, he said, "I got a few chuckles from the local farmers at the regional market." But he figures the cellular phone, one of 1 million installed around the country, has boosted his corn sales by about $20,000 a year. "It paid for itself in the first week," Webb said.

Cellular phones and the proliferation of other electronic gadgetry mean that for businesses as diverse as agriculture and architecture, work is no longer limited by the walls of an office.

Pacific Bell, for instance, has 1,000 employees who "telecommute" a day or two a week by working at home or in satellite offices. They stay in touch with call forwarding and voice-mail messaging systems on their phones; some have personal computers at home. Carol Nolan, a Pacific Bell project manager, claims the company's telecommuters are 20% more productive because they face fewer interruptions. And GTE workers like having more free time because they don't spend as much time on the freeways.

But this freedom has shaken up the sociology of the office. "You do miss out on some informal communication that goes on at the office," conceded USC research scientist Jack Nilles, who coined the term "telecommuting." And Mary Ann Von Glinow, associate business professor at USC, has said that for women and minorities, being out of the office can jeopardize opportunities for promotion because they aren't as visible.

Adapting to work without walls, though, is an appealing idea. "I'm very much into the 21st Century," declares publisher Steven Brill, 37, the high-octane owner of 11 legal newspapers around the country, including the nationally distributed American Lawyer.

Brill's weekend home in Westchester, N.Y., is outfitted with a fax machine--the device that has put the fear of God into Federal Express executives because it can transmit copies of documents over the phone for the price of a long-distance phone call. Early fax machines were as big as a jukebox and could cost $10,000, but sales have spurted as they have shrunk in size and cost. New ones are the size of an electric typewriter and can be bought for $900. About 500,000 fax machines will be sold this year, up from 329,000 in 1987.

Every Friday, publishers of Brill's newspapers submit a weekly financial report. "It's faxed to my house and I read it all weekend," Brill said. He also has a word processor at home, where he writes all his American Lawyer articles. "I can't write at the office, there are too many distractions."

Brill, a frequent flier, also owns a laptop computer. As inexpensive as $1,000, these portable, battery-powered computers weigh as little as 6 1/2 pounds and can do financial analysis and expense reports. About 680,000 will be sold this year, compared to 405,000 in 1987.

But Brill's favorite toy is a portable cellular phone. Unlike conventional cellular phones that are attached to an automobile console, Brill's $2,000 portable phone weighs only 28 ounces, has battery power sufficient for 45 minutes worth of calls--and if Brill is within the service area of the 133 cities with cellular phone service, he can dial like a madman. "I carry it everywhere," he said.

Everywhere includes taxi cabs. Brill was in a cab one night in Manhattan when one of his editors called. "We were closing an issue in Washington and I'd gotten a threat of a libel suit," Brill said. They talked about the article and, he said, "we made a couple of changes and strengthened it."

Brill says the portable phone "makes it impossible to waste time." But every employee needs a break now and again from having the boss around. With that phone it means Brill could call them at any moment . "They probably wish I'd forget the thing occasionally," Brill conceded.

Is the cellular phone causing a subtle shift in the relationships between bosses and employees?

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