Digital Nomads Ditch Cubicles for Shared Spaces, Choosing Their Co-Workers

Wireless internet has developed a new kind of colleague -- the digital nomad. They work wherever they find a wireless Web connection and then reach their coworkers via instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, email and more, Video by Michael S. Rosenwald/The Washington Post
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Frank Gruber's workstation at AOL in Dulles could be in any cubicle farm from here to Bangalore -- push-pin board for reminders, computer on Formica desk, stifling fluorescent lighting. It's so drab there's nothing more to say about it, which is why the odds of finding Gruber there are slim.

Instead, Gruber often works at Tryst in Adams Morgan, at Liberty Tavern in Clarendon, at a Starbucks, in hotel lobbies, at the Library of Congress, on the Bolt Bus to New York or, as he did last week, beside the rooftop pool of the Hilton on Embassy Row. Gruber and Web entrepreneur Jen Consalvo turned up late one morning, opened their Mac laptops, connected to WiFi and began working. A few feet away, the pool's water shimmered like hand-blown glass.

"I like the breeze," Consalvo said, working all the while.

Gruber and Consalvo are digital nomads. They work -- clad in shorts, T-shirts and sandals -- wherever they find a wireless Web connection to reach their colleagues via instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and occasionally by voice on their iPhones or Skype. As digital nomads, experts say, they represent a natural evolution in teleworking. The Internet let millions of wired people work from home; now, with widespread WiFi, many have cut the wires and left home (or the dreary office) to work where they please -- and especially around other people, even total strangers.

For nomads, the benefits are both primitive and practical.

Primitive: Tom Folkes, an artificial intelligence programmer, worked last week at the Java Shack in Arlington County because he's "an extrovert working on introvert tasks. If I'm working at home by myself, I am really hating life. I need people." He has a coffee shop rotation. "I spread my business around."

Practical: Marilyn Moysey, an Ezenia employee who sells virtual collaboration software, often works at Panera Bread near her home in Alexandria even though she has an office in the "boondocks." Why? "Because there is no hope for the road system around here," she said. Asked where her co-workers were, Moysey said, "I don't know, because it doesn't matter anymore."

Nomad life is already evolving. Nomads who want the feel of working with officemates have begun co-working in public places or at the homes of strangers. They work laptop-by-laptop in living rooms and coffee shops, exchanging both idle chitchat and business advice with people who all work for different companies. The gatherings are called jellies, after a bowl of jelly beans the creators were eating when they came up with the name.

Although the number of digital nomads is intrinsically difficult to measure -- they are constantly in motion and difficult to pin down for polling -- evidence of a real shift in where Americans work is mounting. Dell reports that its digital nomad Web site is getting tens of thousands of hits a month. Panera, a popular spot for people working wirelessly, logs 1.5 million WiFi sessions a month.

One only needs to visit Tryst, a popular coffeehouse on 18th Street NW, to see dozens of people spending money on food and drinks in exchange for the privilege of setting up a day office at a table there. Cafe owners love the trend. "If there was nobody in here, people would say 'That place is no good,' " said Dale Roberts, who owns the Java Shack. "It feeds on itself. If you go to a movie theater and see a long line, people want to see that movie. It's the same thing for a coffee shop."

One of the inalienable rights of digital nomads is starting their workday well after many of their colleagues out at the cubicle farm have spent hours preparing for and getting to their workstations. Last week, Gruber edged into his workweek from home at 9:15 a.m., posting to his Twitter page, "It's Monday, another busy week ahead!" Twenty-two minutes later, he posted a picture of his breakfast: two eggs, sunny side up. They looked delicious, not a single crack in the yolk. It wasn't until about 11 that Gruber, a 31-year-old product strategist for AOL, arrived at the Hilton pool with Consalvo, his business partner.

She used to work for AOL -- during the stock option boom, she owned a boat she named Options -- but now the 37-year-old is creating a Web startup with Gruber called Shiny Heart Ventures. By lunchtime, they posted a picture of the pool to Flickr with the caption, "Thank you, technology and other shiny objects that make working anywhere a breeze!"

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