Home offices are fast becoming not the exception, but the rule. Some 10 million Americans already operate a business from home. More important, at least 15 percent of workers spend at least one day a week doing work at home, whether telecommuting or just working extra hours. That’s why, in some parts of the country, the number of home offices doubled in the past decade.
Luckily, advances in technology will make it easier than ever to work at home without giving over your life – or your house – to your job. You’ll be able to live like a freelancer, but with the perks of a corporate executive, thanks to four emerging technology trends.
All-in-one broadband communications. Imagine a package deal that offers bandwidth Net access, plus cable TV, plus phone service with free long distance, and lets you take your office number on the road with you to hotels and airport lounges. It’s already happening as companies like AT&T and Verizon, which used to bank their business solely on telephone wires, have re-invented themselves as all-purpose data-service providers, with phone calls being only one part of the mix. At home, Wi-Fi networks will let you use your computer and phone anywhere in the house, rather than tethering yourself to a jack in the wall.
Space-saving computers. Bulky, noisy PCs and their monitors are headed to the museum instead of your home office. Flat-panel screens, wireless keyboards and pointers, shrinking electronics, plus decreasing needs for more and more power compared to the ‘90s, all mean the traditional PC of the past will look much more like Apple’s new flat-panel iMac, which only takes up a 10-inch circle of desk space. High-end PC makers like Area 51 and Voodoo are working on laptop models that will outperform today’s consumer desktop PCs. For most workers, they’ll deliver plenty of processing power, screen space and disk storage, eliminating the need for a big CPU tower with a rackety fan.
Yet future home office PCs will be more reliable, too. Microsoft, Apple and other operating system makers have put themselves on track to deliver more crash-proof desktop systems, and to include consumer-friendly encryption and backups for your files. That means you'll stop losing work documents, invoices, and tax records, or worrying about them being stolen.
Paperwork reduction. Have you tried filing your taxes online yet? If you let a paid preparer do it for you, you only need to sign a single sheet of paper by April 15th, and the rest happens online. In coming years, most government documents will be available in online forms, as will more and more corporate paperwork. Even graphic designers, who once swore by paper’s unique properties, now design magazine spreads by e-mailing files back and forth. Paper copies are still available, but mostly useful as a reliable backup storage format.
Kiss your fax machine goodbye, too. Already, many companies will send you an e-mail attachment instead of a fax if you ask. That’s important, because faxes can’t be stored as computer files – and if they are, they can’t be searched for specific words, unlike an e-mail message or Word document. But even if your clients insist on faxing you, future PC software will accept the incoming faxes over the Net (thanks to Net-based phone service, as described above) and convert them to Word or PDF files for easier, more flexible handling.
Door-to-door service. The FedEx/Kinko’s merger, completed in February 2004, hasn’t visibly borne fruit yet with new products and services. But with home workers on the rise, it’s only a matter of time until most of the support services you used to need a corporate office to get are as easy to order from home as a pizza: tech support, shipping and receiving for packages, even an automated telephone assistant to take messages and schedule meetings while you focus on your work. And if you need to show up in person for a meeting, some car-rental companies already offer door-to-door service, so your clients needn’t see you roll up in your old Honda Civic.
In short, the home office of the future will seem like home to you, but like a professional office to everyone you deal with. All the trappings of a corporate office – high-speed communications, reliable computer access, extensive document archives, and convenient support services for mundane tasks – will be available at home. There’s only one thing technology probably won’t be able to provide: a way to keep the kids from interrupting you.