Digital Nomads And The New Workforce

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There’s something about the weekend that gets me in the mood for bigger think pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my Blog feeds, but I am more inclined to read a bigger/deeper article as I gear up to record a new episode of Six Pixels of Separation – The Twist Image Podcast. On my flight to Orlando yesterday, I was struck by the article, The New Oases – Nomadism changes buildings, cities and traffic, from the April 10th, 2008 print edition of The Economist.

The New Oases looks at how technology – mostly laptops, mobile devices and widespread wi-fi – have changed everything we’ve ever known about how people learn and work together.

"The fact that people are no longer tied to specific places for functions such as studying or learning, says Mr Mitchell, means that there is ‘a huge drop in demand for traditional, private, enclosed spaces’ such as offices or classrooms, and simultaneously ‘a huge rise in demand for semi-public spaces that can be informally appropriated to ad-hoc workspaces’. This shift, he thinks, amounts to the biggest change in architecture in this century. In the 20th century architecture was about specialised structures—offices for working, cafeterias for eating, and so forth. This was necessary because workers needed to be near things such as landline phones, fax machines and filing cabinets, and because the economics of building materials favoured repetitive and simple structures, such as grid patterns for cubicles… Buildings will have much more varied shapes than before. For instance, people working on laptops find it comforting to have their backs to a wall, so hybrid spaces may become curvier, with more nooks, in order to maximise the surface area of their inner walls, rather as intestines do. This is becoming affordable because computer-aided design and new materials make non-repetitive forms cheaper to build."

These are implications that are happening and shifting beneath our feet, but never spoken about. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read The Economist article – in an, "it’s obvious, but why haven’t I said it before?" kind of way. I definitely "felt" this type of new workforce when I visited the Google headquarters last year. Speaking of which:

"A particularly striking example, bordering on caricature, is the so-called Googleplex, the headquarters of Google in Mountain View, California. Naturally it has Wi-Fi coverage. But the Googleplex is famous for its good and free victuals, doled out at food courts throughout the sprawling campus, and for the casual mixture of play and work. Over here a software engineer is writing some code on his laptop, sweaty in his workout clothes from the volleyball game in progress on the lawn. Over there another one is zipping along on a scooter, heading for a massage or going to pick up his laundry from the onsite service. Google even extends this workspace, virtually, throughout the entire San Francisco Bay Area by running a fleet of commuter shuttles, all of which have Wi-Fi on board to allow uninterrupted coding… Some traditional property developers are drawing inspiration from this sort of thing."

We have all become Digital Nomads. Able to work wherever we’re feeling most inspired (as long as there is wi-fi). I wonder how the masses will deal with this? Is it possible to just show up and grab any desk in an office building and log on (there are many companies that have this as part of their corporate culture already)? How will in-person, team collaboration dynamics be affected? What about the overall dynamics and vibe we get from going to our offices?

As you can tell, this article moved me, and I strongly recommend you give it a read and post your own thoughts: The Economist – The New Oases – Nomadism changes buildings, cities and traffic.


  1. Nice post Mitch. I have been fascinated watching people write about this set of articles from The Economist. I read these when first published, which was the first and last time this year I have been able to do that. Since then, I have noticed a slow trickle of coverage in the blogosphere as folks get around to reading the issue. Everyone loves the articles as much as you do. What I interpret in this, which may be different than the facts, is how “nomadic” this behavior appears to be. As time in our busy schedule allows, we get to the articles and eventually write a blog post. This is very different from the typical hot topic for 72 hours and then fade away pattern we often seem. Instead, so many people seem to be getting to these articles as their lives somehow come back around to a point where they can sit down and read.
    Perhaps I read to much into the slow but steady stream of blog posts, but at a minimum these articles have a staying power and I suspect others will be blogging about this coverage in the future.
    Would love to hear your observations from Google sometime.

  2. Although that trend may be starting to take hold, there are rows upon rows of buildings built on the 20th century model and the corporations that own or lease them aren’t about to radically change their use and layout. Most people work in these static and claustrophobic environments and it may be a whole generation before cubicles disappear.

  3. And I should have added that what is most ridiculous, is that many buildings now have Wi-Fi everywhere, employees have laptops, but you’re expected to sit at your desk anyway. The culture is lagging far behind the technology in this case. Why don’t I go to the Starbucks on the corner, the park or the library to work instead of being at my desk?! Even with email, IM, etc. folks still say things like “you weren’t at your desk and so I thought you weren’t working today”.

  4. Mitch, your post made me think of two things:
    First, we’ve been conditioned now for several years to think of the blogosphere as a place that only allows for short, fast posts that track the Blogosphere News Cycle (think TV news cycle, but faster). I’ve never agreed with that philosophy, because often that fast reactive cycle isn’t well suited to informed, thoughtful discourse. I love Michael’s point about how discussion of the Economist articles has trickled out as we nomads digest and interpret it.
    Second, I agree with Philippe that it will take us a long time to alter our Industrial Age perception that there is a clear dividing line between “work” and “not work”. Many businesses built around Industrial Age principles of centralization and the assembly line will take a long time to shift their approach in any meaningful way.
    In the mean time, nimble entrepreneurs will be leading the way.

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