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New technologies and tools deliver on the promise of the virtual office.

July 1, 2006

Remember the first time you heard the term virtual office?

More than a decade ago, there was more promise than practical value to the term. It wasn’t until the roll-out of "hot spots" and wireless Wi-Fi networking that most could actually work in the field with the same efficiency as in a conventional office. Of course, if you strayed from a hot spot, you'd lose your Internet connection.

Over the past year or so, cellular service providers have made strides with broadband cellular service, which finally delivers the true potential of the virtual office. For example, Cingular Wireless, with its EDGE technology, and Sprint/Nextel and Verizon Wireless with their EV-DO technology, are expanding a new infrastructure that will liberate you from the hot spot. With either system, mobile practitioners can have broadband Internet access anywhere and anytime cellular service is available.

Microsoft is also taking steps to make working virtually a practical option for all. Late in June the company unveiled its plans for a "unified communications strategy." The strategy will combine the capabilities of mobile hardware and wireless technologies with software that enables a sort of moving control center. Users will have 24/7 access to all their communications and information resources from any device, from any location.

How to Get Started

In real estate, where quality of service is often evaluated in terms of responsiveness, it’s no longer a question of if but how you’ll work from a virtual office. (The August issue of REALTOR® Magazine will include a look at the tools and services necessary for a virtual office based on the experiences of those who’ve already embraced the concept.)

To get started on your virtual office:

  • Determine your communications needs. Voice calling, mobile e-mail, and Web-based faxing are essential to mobile productivity. Instant messaging is becoming an increasingly popular form of correspondence, especially with younger consumers. You also need control over how correspondence is routed to you and retrieved from any location and a solution for sharing documents electronically. These require a voice and data plan and strategy for wireless Web access. If hot spots are abundantly available in your area, or you can plan your day around them, they’ll suffice. Otherwise, broadband cellular service programs make sense.
  • Adequately equip yourself. The hub of the virtual office is hardware that allows you to run software, work with documents, and access the Web.With smartphones, your choice in hardware will be determined by your wireless provider. Providers offer a range of models compatible with their system and services. Those who expect to rely primarily on a notebook enjoy more latitude. Wireless modem and Wi-Fi networking are now built into many models, or available as PC cards to make the systems compatible with different services.
  • Consider software. With a notebook, your software travels with you. As you move to more compact devices, though, you may require specialized versions of applications you use — or new software entirely — to remain productive. Whether you use software installed on your hardware or Web-based applications, the basics include a Web browser, contact manager with calendar, and a productivity suite.

The virtual office may also introduce some unique software requirements for activities such as mobile MLS access, creating mini tours sent from the field, and working with electronic forms and contracts. Avanquest Software’s Connection Manager, for example, automatically detects available networks for connecting to as you travel about, then manages those connections in a secure environment.

Although it’s been a long time coming, the promise of the virtual office is finally available and accessible.