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In search of the neo-nomad

In search of the neo-nomad

Laptop worker

More and more people work remotely

Is a new breed of wireless worker emerging? asks Bill Thompson.

I am, it seems, a neo-nomad. Or perhaps a digital bedouin, if you prefer something that makes the computing connection more obvious.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle recently reporter Dan Fost claims that a new generation of IT workers has grown up, people who turn a laptop, a wireless connection and a caf.© into an office and work wherever they happen to be.

Since he covers the Bay Area, just north of Silicon Valley, his focus is on website developers, programmers and of course entrepreneurs pushing their Web 2.0 startups. He distinguishes them from traditional freelancers because of their close engagement with technology and use of the latest generation of web-based tools in their working lives.

Yet the name would seem to apply just as well outside the hothouse atmosphere of San Francisco, and I think it should be extended to cover a broader range of workers than just the high-tech startups because it refers to an attitude and a way of organising daily life rather than to any specific technology.

As one of the millions of people who work wherever they happen to find themselves, relying on a laptop and a wireless connection for all their computing needs, I certainly live a nomadic lifestyle, pitching my virtual camp wherever I happen to find myself.

And I’d rather be a neo-nomad than a laptop warrior, a term which was clearly designed to make corporate executives feel that the evenings spent in dull business hotels in Utrecht preparing the monthly sales figures had some heroic aspect.

Nomads certainly have lots of places to settle for an hour or two of work.

Bill Thompson
The main advantages of independents are that the coffee is sometimes exceptionally good and the wireless is often provided free

One of my favourites is Brill on Exmouth Market in central London, partly because it is also a record store – it used to be Clerkenwell Records – but mostly because there is a bench outside that I can sit on to pick up my e-mail if I’m just passing on my way to nearby City University.

I reckon I’m in there often enough as a paying customer to get away with the occasional freeloading session, although customers who nurse a single latte for hours while they work away, chatting on Skype and spending no money, aren’t good for business. I try to pay my way wherever I’m sitting.

As usual with trend-spotting there is a massive temptation to introduce arbitrary distinctions and claim that they represent fundamental divisions between sub-groups.

Are the people who choose to work in a branch of Starbucks really more “corporate” than those who prefer independent cafes, for example?

Or does it just come down to which caf.© is nearest to home or which is cheapest? What about those who will use any space they can find that offers wireless access and space to sit?

The main advantages of independents are that the coffee is sometimes exceptionally good and the wireless is often provided free as a way of pulling in customers, but the large chains can be comforting in a strange city where the focus is on linking up with online friends and not sampling local colour.

Cafes aren’t the only option, of course.

There’s free wireless in the bar at the Arts Picturehouse here in Cambridge, but if you want to get away from either caffeine or alcohol then there is a growing number of shared workspaces offering people a chance to escape the isolation of the home office without the noise and pressure to buy coffee that you get in even the most welcoming caf.©.

But wherever you happen to be, it’s the pattern of working life that defines a nomad, with no office, colleagues who are largely engaged with online and often a number of overlapping projects to be juggled and managed at the same time.

The term neo-nomad has actually been around for a while. Researcher Yasmine Abbas calls her blog neo-nomad, and she has been writing about what she calls “digitally geared people on the move” since 2005.

Abbas is especially interested in how people who work on the move retain a sense of belonging to places and organisations, and at the way new technologies open up new ways of belonging to groups and even companies.

My good friend Simon runs an online recruitment company and it has operated as a hybrid business since it started.

There is a real office, and meetings take place there, but in general the team work remotely from wherever they happen to find themselves, whether that’s in Brighton, Suffolk or Australia.

It has been effective so far, and there was no way that the core team would all have moved to the same city or worked together in an office.

It may be a lot harder as they expand, though, simply because many of the online tools we currently use do not scale as well as an office floor in a well-designed system. Using instant messaging and project management tools is fine with five or 10 people, but a lot harder with 50 or a 100.

Neo-nomads and digital bedouins sound very exciting, but we mustn’t forget that this will only ever be a viable way of working for a small, skilled and privileged minority of people.

Most of us, most of the time, will work for organisations that require us to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to be a member of a team carrying out assigned tasks, including making and serving lattes in cafes.

It may be useful to look at the way the unwired among us work, and the patterns that emerge could be useful in developing working practices that are more humane and more productive, but we need to treat the neo nomads – and I include myself – as the digital equivalent of Formula One racing cars.

They are flashy, expensive and fast, and though they help develop new technologies nobody would suggest that we all drive one.

For one thing, there’s no space in an F1 car for a laptop, never mind the weekly shopping.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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