Who Needs A Desk When You've Got A Lap?

How far can the laptop boom take American business? How about out of the office forever? That's what AT&T's Business Network Sales Div. plans. This spring, 500 of its salespeople who sell long-distance services to businesses will be evicted from offices in 10 states. Henceforth, they'll hang their hats only at home.

In exchange for four walls, salespeople such as John J. White will be outfitted with a portable office: a seven-pound notebook equipped with a modem for communicating with American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s corporate computers, and a portable printer. Later, he'll get a cellular phone. Leaving the office for good is fine with 25-year-old White: "It's a greater level of freedom and a greater level of interaction with my customers."

AT&T's experiment is the brainchild of David L. Grimes, an AT&T sales vice-president who wanted to make his people more productive. Last year, after 18 months of study, he hit on the right combination of hardware and software, and persuaded a group of volunteer guinea pigs to try the setup for four months. The result? Grimes documented productivity gains of 5% to 45%. "Now, the others are clamoring for it," he says. They won't have long to wait: In 30 days, every salesperson in his 10-state region will be up, running, and out the door.

Over the next two years, 10,000 other AT&T salespeople will follow suit--half of them by October. The plan will cut AT&T's office-leasing costs by 50% because branch offices will have just a few desks for managers and a conference room. When salespeople have to come in, they'll use temporary cubicles, complete with nameplates on the wall--attached with Velcro.

OUT OF TOUCH? To see how workers respond to their new environment--or lack of it--AT&T is monitoring the scheme with psychologists from Indiana University. Employees fear the loss of social relationships that develop at work. They also worry that the boss won't remember them when it comes time for promotion. "We'll have to come up with a set of tools that keeps people connected with their network of colleagues," says David A. Goodrum, who heads the university's team.

Management will have to adjust, too: "Imagine not having people in the office where you can keep your eye on them," says Roger G. Dalrymple, AT&T's manager of information technology for the division, which is based in Basking Ridge, N. J.

Salesman White is sure that the new free-form infrastructure will work. "I'm happy when I make a sale and get a commission check," he says, "not because I have an office with a certain amount of floor space and a picture of my wife." He can always put the picture in his wallet. But if AT&T gets the productivity gains it expects, fatter commissions will eat that space, too.