Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
May 10, 2008 7:20 AM

Digital Nomads And The New Workforce

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.

By Mitch Joel