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Originally published August 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 3, 2009 at 12:33 PM

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Cubicles foreign to digital nomads

The rise of Wi-Fi has allowed millions of people to cut the wires to offices and work where they please.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Frank Gruber's workstation at AOL in Dulles, Va., could be in any cubicle farm from here to Bangalore — pushpin board for reminders, computer on Formica desk, stifling fluorescent lighting. It's drab, which is why the odds of finding Gruber there are slim.

Instead, Gruber, 31, often works at Tryst in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, at Liberty Tavern in suburban Clarendon, Va., at a Starbucks, in hotel lobbies, at the Library of Congress, on the Bolt Bus to New York or, as he did recently, beside the rooftop pool of the Hilton on D.C.'s Embassy Row.

Gruber and Web entrepreneur Jen Consalvo, 37, turned up late one morning, opened their Mac laptops, connected to Wi-Fi and began working. A few feet away, the pool's water shimmered like handblown 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 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 teleworking evolution. The Internet let millions of wired people work from home; now, with widespread Wi-Fi, many have cut the wires and left home (or the dreary office) to work where they please — especially around other people, even strangers.

For nomads, the benefits are both primitive and practical.

Primitive: Tom Folkes, an artificial-intelligence programmer, worked at the Java Shack in Arlington County, Va., 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 employee of Ezenia who sells virtual collaboration software, often works at Panera Bread near her home in Alexandria, Va., 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 — there is evidence of a real shift.

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Dell reports that its digital nomad Web site is getting tens of thousands of hits a month. Panera, a popular site for people working wirelessly, logs 1.5 million Wi-Fi sessions a month.

One only needs to visit Tryst, a popular coffeehouse on 18th Street Northwest in D.C., 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."

Late start to day

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.

Recently, 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.

It wasn't until about 11 that Gruber, a product strategist at AOL, arrived at the Hilton pool with Consalvo, his business partner.

She used to work for AOL, but now she 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, backup 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 and dealt with contractors. When Consalvo won a small victory, hooking someone to work on a project, she feted herself by dipping her feet in the pool.

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," she said. "But why wouldn't you work this way if you could?"

Sites shout leisure

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." She expects ever more nomads: "The younger work force 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.

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."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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