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!"
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."