AS the clock struck 6pm in California, a visiting Santiago Go was just getting ready to begin his office hours. It would be 9am the next day in the Philippines and it was time to keep tabs on the family-owned enterprise, Evergreen Industries, a maker of construction materials, thousands of miles back home in Asia.
Despite the importance placed on the personal touch in Asia's business culture, it appears that the virtual office has finally gained a toehold in the region. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world tele-work.
And thanks to the broad range of technologies now available, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) last year and the financial savings that tele-working can mean, an increasing number of Asian businesses have embraced the concept of the virtual office.
Lilian Tay of the technology consulting firm Gartner says the trend was behind the 11% rise in computer sales in Asia excluding Japan.
Sales of mobile computers, which include laptops and handheld devices, grew 41% in 2003 from the previous year. Until midnight, while he was in California, Go replied to and asked questions of senior employees, many of whom wanted executive decisions on such things as plywood pricing and preferential payment terms for valued customers.
Using text messaging by mobile phone, e-mail, online chat and Internet voice conferencing, he says he has been able to smoothly manage an operation with dozens of employees in two cities in the Southern Philippines.
Nothing compares to being there, he said, but if you've trained people well at what they need to do, the system works.
As the owner of a medium-size business, Go chose a system that costs next to nothing to operate. After investing in new PCs for his offices, mobile phones for himself and senior executives, and a laptop, he uses inexpensive or free software to do things that once only big-spending multinationals could.
Instead of spending thousands of dollars on long distance calls, Go uses the Skype.com voice-over-Internet system to speak to employees in the office. Through its website, Skype gives away a stripped-down version of the program at no cost.
Like so many developing countries in Asia, the Philippines has not fully deregulated long distance calls, which is why it costs about US$1 (RM3.80) a minute between, say, Hong Kong and Manila, and only 5 cents a minute (20 sen) between Hong Kong and New York.
For Asian businessmen who are careful with expenses, voice-over-Internet services like Net2Phone and Yahoo!, MSN or AOL voice chat signify a big change in the ability to be remote control bosses.
Among larger companies that operate in several countries, much of the resistance toward tele-working broke down after SARS.
Jason Lung, CEO of the Hong Kong technology consultants Structure Systems, said, What happened was that many of my customers were scared of visiting their clients.
Lung found himself busy installing secure web-conferencing systems, some of which included web-cam functions.
The companies were pushed into it, he said, and now see they can save money.
Many employees now find it a waste of time to visit colleagues and prefer to communicate via instant messaging with chat programs.
SARS was certainly the reason that top executives at CLSA, one of Asias biggest brokerage houses, became believers in the virtual office.
CLSA is the proud owner of a state-of-the-art video-conferencing system that the firms managing director, Gary Coull, says cost north of a million dollars.
Last spring the company was forced to cancel its annual conference after the World Health Organisation advised against travel to Hong Kong.
Instead of postponing the Hong Kong conference, an event the Asian investment community has come to look forward to every year, CLSA bought their system, which produces a 3-D effect on a large screen, and staged a virtual conference. They showcased such speakers as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, addressing audiences gathered in hotels and CLSA offices around the world.
One Hong Kong-based fund manager who attended the sessions says that for him it was the turning point in accepting the tele-working idea.
CLSA still uses the videoconferencing equipment. Previously wary clients now use the machines to meet company representatives and the firm itself even interviews potential employees over the system.
Even if IT specialists like Lung concede that there is no beating a face-to-face meeting of the kind Asian business prizes so much, it is clear that the virtual office is here to stay in Asia.
As a Cisco Systems white paper put it: Building a mobile environment has less to do with installing technology than with creating a corporate culture around mobility. International Herald Tribune
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