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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

Definition of shiny objects: their equipment. Between the two of them, they travel with more than $10,000 in gear. They lug laptops, iPhones, back-up hard drives, power supplies and too many USB adapters to tally. "We are like good little Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts -- always prepared," Consalvo said.

Gruber worked on AOL products, including the company's instant messaging system. He and Consalvo also chatted about coding for their Web site, dealt with contractors and sent lots of e-mail. When Consalvo won a small victory, hooking someone important to work on a project with her, she feted herself by dipping her feet in the pool. The only stress all day was a weird mix of music piped in to entertain poolgoers. Frank Sinatra followed by Beyoncé does not constitute optimal working conditions.

Consalvo's father, a Maine lobster fisherman, is skeptical that lolling by the pool can constitute a workday. "I don't think he thinks that any of this work is real," Consalvo said. "But why wouldn't you work this way if you could?"

The attraction of working poolside is obvious, but why would an employer let workers pick venues that shout leisure rather than productivity? "It's a win-win," said Mary Barnes, Gruber's boss at AOL, in an instant message chat. "Frank is happy doing what he loves and from a business perspective, we gain valuable industry knowledge, contacts and insights." Barnes works closely with Gruber to measure his contributions, and both expect to see ever more nomads: "The younger workforce will demand it. That's how they live."

Carsten Sorensen, a London School of Economics professor who studies nomads, said people working away from an office often feel pressure to work harder to protect their freedom. This can make working as a nomad "both heaven and hell," he said, even leading to burnout.

At Buzz Bakery in Alexandria last week, half a dozen people assembled for a jelly organized by Lacey Hopkins, a technical writer. She started co-working once a week after working alone at home left her strangely tired at day's end. "Extroverted people like me get their energy from other people," she said.

Sitting across from her was Chris Charbonneau, who founded a company called Joey Totes, which sells reusable shopping bags. "Working at home, you don't get to have the office environment and meet people," he said. "From a business perspective, there's some great opportunities out there. You're gonna meet a lot of people who can really help you out." He's gotten valuable marketing advice from people he's met at jellies.

Slightly more formal co-working centers have opened across the country, including Affinity Lab in office space above the Diner in Adams Morgan. Ads on the wall at Tryst offer space to the fully-evolved nomad who doesn't want a formal office but still wants a community of people to swap ideas with -- and a fax machine. Members pay $235 a month to work in a communal room -- no desk included -- or $575 for a desk. Users include designers, software startup entrepreneurs, nonprofit group staffers and an importer of Chilean wine.

Gruber and Consalvo intend to remain "location-independent" throughout their work lives. "In real estate, the emphasis is always put on 'location, location, location!' and thanks to ever-evolving technology, we can now be productive from almost any location," they wrote on their Web site. "And while we understand that there is no place like home, we like to think we have many homes -- the primary one being the World Wide Web."

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