His boss is in California; his staff are all over Europe. But Tony Perks keeps in close touch with everyone, from Berkshire. By Dorothy Walker
The problem for Tony Perks was that his 50-strong team were spread across Europe, his head office was in California, his customers were spread across seven time zones - and he had to keep everybody in touch with everybody else. The answer to his communication problem was simple: stay at home.

Tony is European IT director for communications supplier 3Com. Even though the company has an office 20 miles away, Tony does much of his work from his house in Berkshire, where he has set up what is quite possibly the most wired home office in Britain.

He says: "It makes my life easier. My boss is in California, so although my day starts early, it doesn't finish until midnight or 2am, because of the eight-hour time difference. So my day is not a normal day, and I am fairly well set up to work at home."

This is an understatement. Tony's 15ft by 10ft office is crammed with techno-goodies, from high-speed communications links to a personal video- conferencing system. You might expect this from the representative of a company that majors in communications equipment (and from a man who admits "I like my toys"), but Tony actually uses all this stuff as part of his job.

A typical working day starts at 7am, when Tony checks his e-mail. "Most of my communication is through e-mail," he says, "both inside the company, and more and more with external contacts via the Internet. Every evening I log on after 10 o'clock and turn around anything from the US. That means I save 24 hours, because they get a reply from me during their afternoon rather than having to wait until the next day - it saves me a lot of time."

Communications are done at high speed, thanks to an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line that operates four times faster than a modem on a normal phone line. He says: "That's the magic ingredient - that's what really makes things fly.

"You don't have to have a fancy house to work from home - all you need is access to ISDN. My European technical services manager lives in Luton, and he was unable to get ISDN to his house until very recently. We have overcome that by convincing BT to install it outside their technical guidelines - essentially they say that where they have installed it it shouldn't work because he is too far away from the exchange.

We said `OK, we'll take a gamble and pay for it to be installed - if it doesn't work, we won't hold you to it. So they have installed it, and lo and behold, it works."

A number of Tony's staff are equipped to work from home, and in effect have an extension of the company's network in their houses. Using a 3Com gizmo called an Arpeggio, they can connect at high speed to the company's own worldwide network, and use it as if they were sitting in a company office.

Tony has two PCs: a Pentium 133 machine and an Apple Mac. The Mac is used for designing presentations (`It's easier to use - but then I worked for Apple for 10 years, so I am biased') and everything else happens on the Pentium, which has an inbuilt fax and a pounds 3,000 video-conferencing system.

He says: "Every Thursday afternoon I do a three-hour conference with the rest of the global executive team in California. I connect via video- conferencing to our video suite at headquarters. I used to do it by phone, but it's much easier in front of a monitor, where you can see people and their interaction and hand movements.

"And I have just interviewed someone in Ireland for a job, by video-conferencing. Although it is never going to be the same as sitting round a table, once you get used to using it, it is pretty damned close."

That trademark of the home office - the mile-high stack of paper - is noticeably absent chez Perks. Although he has a black and white laser printer, he only prints when he needs to study figures on a spreadsheet, preferring to transport information on a laptop PC when he travels.

Everything here is done by the book. Rather than spend time swapping cables between various techno-boxes, everything is connected via a local area network, which means that computers can share a printer, and the laptop can join in the fun, transferring information to and from the desktop machines.

Electronic spaghetti is neatly hidden from view, thanks to good-quality office furniture that allows for cabling. The only drawback of the room was the limited number of power sockets, solved by bolting a 12-bar power extension to the bottom of the desk. Tony keeps his PC switched on all the time (`No reason, really'), but none of his equipment consumes more power than a light bulb.

He says: "I did the design myself - it's pretty simple, really. The products you use in the home office you almost buy shrink-wrapped off-the-shelf. There are no complex technical issues here."

For those thinking of setting up an office at home, he says: "You don't need much room - just some for your PC. I don't think you necessarily need a printer. The key is having remote access, and some dedicated space - don't try to do it in the dining room."

Even Tony's telephone conversations are to be enhanced by technology. The company is installing a product called Hot Desking, which will work with its telephone voice-mail system. Tony will be able to give people one telephone number, inform the system of his real contact number at any time, and his calls will be directed to him, no matter where in the world he is. This, he says, is the final link in being able to support workers who are truly location-independent - and in helping unfortunate callers to avoid being trapped in endless voice-mail loops.

Are there any downsides to working at home? He says: "The danger is that you don't spend enough time with the people you are managing. And if you are managed, you have to spend time with your peers and your managers. You go out of your way to make sure you have face-to-face meetings with people - it's down to discipline really."

But thanks to his home office, between late-night corporate e- mailing sessions he can have meetings with his latest family recruit - who's only four months old. Not playing with the technology yet, then? "You'd be surprised," he says.

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