Balancing home and office

Katherine Lisus was at a party when she first heard about a Microsoft initiative called Technology In Action, and the idea sounded like a good one to her.

A friend suggested that her company, Toronto-based Lisus Marketing Inc., might be a good candidate for the program which tries to demonstrate how people at work can achieve balance in their professional and personal lives by maximizing the use of office productivity technology.

Microsoft offers a select few Canadian companies hardware, software and training to see if these additions can affect the work/life balance. The participants answer surveys before, during and after the program.

Lisus said when she heard people mention “laptop,” “Pocket PC” and “being portable” it sounded pretty appealing.

“The training also interested me,” she said, as did the fact she could integrate the equipment already on-hand. “I had four different computers with four different versions of Windows. Also, I knew there were better programs out there and I wouldn’t have access to training if I just went out and bought those tools myself.”

Lisus noted she has no idea why she was picked for the 60-day program, run from Dec. 2000 until Jan. 2001, but she feels she may have fit a profile.

“I am a woman who owns a small, young business. I have three young children and a husband with a demanding work life,” she said.

Susan Sharp, Office marketing manager for Microsoft, said they chose five business professionals from across Canada – Vancouver, Calgary, London, Toronto and Montreal.

“We wanted to have regional representation, and we wanted the participants to represent one of the following: a small business like a SOHO (small office home office), a small business with 50 to 100 employees, medium organizations or even someone from a large organization,” Sharp explained.

They also looked for participants from different industries. “We had one that worked in manufacturing, one in professional services, one in business services, one in hospitality and one in transportation.”

Microsoft was looking for each participant to hold some kind of leadership role within their organization. “This kind of speaks to the balance thing,” Sharp said. “We wanted participants who travelled often, or had long commutes to the office. We wanted to have a situation where there were external pressures, where there was a need to achieve a better work/life balance.”

Each participant was given software, including Windows 2000 Professional, Microsoft Office Premium Edition, Microsoft Visio 2000 and Microsoft Project 2000. Lisus also received a Compaq Armada Laptop, a Compaq iPaq, an Artec Ultima scanner, a Logitech Quick Cam Pro Web camera and an HP Deskjet printer.

Lisus said her office has been acquiring equipment as it acquired staff, so that several machines were running different versions of software.

“I had someone who had networked us, so I was able to keep up, but I didn’t feel that I was ahead of the game or that I had a real sense of what actual programs we should be using.”

She added the program she is getting the most use out of right now is Outlook. “What I’ve got now, which I never had before, is my client list, my supplier list, and it’s networked. Before I was carrying binders. I had to have that information with me.

“It’s great that I can post any contact and develop a client history so that it’s not in different piles.”

Lisus had a palm computer and a laptop before she started the TIA program, but neither were connected to her main files.

She said having everything networked, integrated and mobile has left her with more control. “I’m not sure that I say, ‘Oh great, now that I have this technology I work less.’ I think I work smarter. I get more done in the same amount of time.”

She did note that having the hardware and software that the program offered made it possible to plan a last-minute vacation.

“We squeezed in two weeks, because my husband got a break and we jumped on it very quickly,” she explained. “I took my laptop, my Pocket PC and my cell phone.

“Probably a year ago I would have spent twice as much time working, and any contact with the office would have been over the phone. With this connectivity, I was able to work around the kids’ schedules.”

Sharp noted that most of the participants were interested in the connectivity afforded by the laptop and Pocket PC. “It was interesting showing them how to use these devices and the mobility to their advantage,” she said. “I don’t think they understood the power at their fingertips.”

Sharp said that in surveys, all five participants found that with the up-front time spent on training they had the freedom to work on their own terms. “It really eases their stress. The training was a big component and we found training is vital in terms of understanding the full benefits.”

Lisus said in the future she will always try to bring in a training aspect to any major upgrades. She would also like to have a micro Web site on which clients can view marketing campaigns. “It would save a lot of travel and meeting time.”

This program has also increased Lisus’ computer confidence.

“I used to just call the (support) hotlines, but now I will spend that extra couple of minutes trying to solve a problem on my own.”