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EDITIONS
Monday, 20 November, 2000, 12:18 GMT
Welcome, I'm your virtual receptionist
Virtual Anna and guest
"The lift is to your right, the bar to your left"
More than one in 10 women in the UK work from home, according to a new government survey. But surely there are limits to tele-working? Not in Silicon Valley, reports Maggie Shiels.

For working mothers living in Silicon Valley in Northern California, US, Anna Morris's daily routine was nothing out of the ordinary.

The abrupt sound of the alarm at three in the morning signalled the beginning of her day.


It's just as courteous as it would be in person - and I didn't have to leave a tip

Donn Perlmann, hotel guest
Once she had showered and dressed, Anna would pack her two kids off to her mother's so that by 0430 she could join the army of commuters battling the congested freeways to get to work.

A good day meant she got there at 0630, giving her a full half-hour to relax before going on shift at the concierge's desk at the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara.

Sixteen hours later, she would arrive back home. She rarely saw her kids or her husband, James.

"It was running me ragged," she says. "I would get up in the dark and get home in the dark."

No more hell commute

Today, Anna's timetable has been turned upside down thanks to the very technology and spirit of innovation that has made Silicon Valley a world leader.

commuting
"Hurry up, I've got to be at work in four hours"
In fact, Anna could be described as positively lazy these days because she sleeps in until 0530.

Her main priority continues to be her two boys, two-year-old Jacques and Luke, now six months, who are still cared for by their grandmother.

But gone is the bumper-to-bumper crawl along Highway 101. Instead of the daily 130-kilometre (80-mile) drive, Anna takes a few steps to her workplace - a bedroom in her Antioch home in the East Bay.

When she gets there, she sits down in front of a camera, pins on her microphone and is ready to do business.

Hold ups
In Silicon Valley, workers lose 30,000 hours a day to traffic jams
In an area used to firsts, Anna is perhaps the world's first virtual concierge.

"I feel like the luckiest person on earth in this valley," she says. "I am thankful I have this chance to work and enjoy my children and home."

The technology that brings "Virtual Anna" to the Westin is pretty simple, according to hotel manager Clive Laing.

Slippers to work

Guests still go up to the concierge desk as usual but instead of the flesh and blood version, Anna is presented larger than life on a giant TV screen.

Ananova, a virtual newsreader
Valley girl: Is a cyber-concierge far off?
A camera and a microphone in the hotel and in Anna's house allow both parties to see and hear one another.

The head and shoulders shot obscures the fact she likes to wear slippers when working. The driving force behind the whole idea was Anna herself.

One day at work she struck up a conversation with a salesman who traded in video-conferencing systems.

She suggested it would be great if they could hook something up that would allow her to work from home - she was about to take maternity leave.

"His eyes lit up and he said it was possible," she says.

That fired up Anna's imagination and she drew up a plan. Her boss Clive Laing was all for it.

Basil Fawltey
The idea becomes more attractive all the time
"This is Silicon Valley. It's the future and we have to embrace it, especially when it comes from the grassroots," he says.

But less prosaic matters conspired to make Anna's dream a reality. The Westin's director of sales and marketing, Richard Brooks, says the hotel, like many businesses in Silicon Valley, could not afford to lose a valued employee.

"Here unemployment is at an all time low. In the hotel industry, we don't have the salaries they pay at Cisco, Palm or Sun Micro, so there's always going to be a high turnover.

"We constantly have to deal with that issue and this is one way we have found to resolve it."

And at $50,000, the hotel brass thought it was worth a try.

No tip required

So far, "Virtual Anna" seems to be going down well with the guests.

Anna Morris
Anna Morris: A more satisfying home-work balance
When Donn Perlmann from Chicago asked for help getting to the airport, he was delighted with the service.

"It's just as courteous, congenial and professional as it would be in person, with the advantage that I didn't have to leave a tip," he says.

Jean Folger, who wanted a restaurant booking, was effusive in her praise.

"It's amazing. It's the first time I've ever seen this. I want to have one of these at work too."

Anna hasn't cut her ties completely. She still comes into the hotel once a week to see colleagues and go to meetings.

More importantly, being virtual means more than just being able to keep doing a job she loves.

"It's wonderful I have a life again."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Anna Morris, head concierge
"Every day I'm learning something new about working virtual"
Hotel manager Clive Laing
"We did look at doing all this over the internet at first"
See also:

06 Nov 00 | Science/Nature
18 Sep 00 | Business
22 Feb 00 | UK
19 Apr 00 | Entertainment
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