Digital nomads and the coffee shop office

The recent article in the Washington Post is quite fascinating, particularly for someone like myself who started a virtual business ten years ago with home computers and an organizational meeting at Panera’s.

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.

All of this makes sense, including the last part regarding co-working with others. The freedom of working from home, or from any spot you select for that matter, is very rewarding. It’s liberating to break free from the arbitrary work schedule imposed on you by your employer. On the other hand, you learn quickly that some level of self-discipline is critical.

Depending on your personality, however, one can begin to miss the daily interactions with other people. particularly friends at the office. So it’s not too surprising to hear how some decide to congregate and work side-by-side.

This brings up another topic critical for many who decide to work from home when starting a new business. Networking is critical to success, but it can also be important simply from a lifestyle and job satisfaction point of view. Many of us need to get out there, and sometimes it’s too easy to spend day after day at home. It’s not a recipe for success.

Finally, if any of this intrigues you, please check out the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. I’ll have much more to say about this in later posts, but Tim is a pioneer in lifestyle management. Check it out if you want to break away from your daily routine of going into an office.

Get travel information at Sundance Vacation.


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