A New Workforce is Brewing

Who needs an office when you've got a cafe? A new wave of employees and entrepreneurs are using Wi-Fi to re-invent what it means to go to work.
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"I’m a global nomad, a road warrior type of executive, who regularly travels and uses all types of technology to get my work done," said Abramson, who manages a staff of 15 employees, all of whom also work virtually. "My job takes me all over the world, either meeting with clients, or attending conferences and industry events."

Abramson, who also writes two blogs, Working Anywhere and VoIPWatch, decides which hotels, restaurants, and even resorts, he stays in based on Wi-Fi availability."I’ve jumped on open hotspot networks when that was all that was available and have carried a Wi-Fi detector to find the open signals," he said.

Abramson has a T-Mobile account, and in a pinch when Wi-Fi isn’t available, he has a 3G modem that he can insert either "Pay as You Go" or contracted 3G data SIM cards to make sure he gets online. Whether he’s inside his hotel apartment in London or in the Virgin Lounge at Heathrow Airport, Abramson will find a way to get online. He carries an arsenal of mobile devices that allow him to connect: three mobile phones, (a Nokia, a BlackBerry, and his new Samsung), two laptops (Mac and PC), and an Internet Tablet from Nokia.

"When I’m on the Internet wirelessly, I’m also able to make phone calls using VoIP over Wi-Fi using services like Truphone, GizmoProject, and Skype," he said.

Dave Taylor, a Colorado-based blogger at AskDaveTaylor.com, also works from public hotspots, mainly at cafés, on a daily basis.

"It’s much more fun than working from home," Taylor said. "Over time, many of my friends have also started working out of cafés. We’ll hang out and be social together even though we are all there working."

As mobile workers, Abramson and Taylor are part of a growing class of workers—dubbed “bedouins,” after the nomadic Arabs who travel from place to place in the desert—who use café-based and other public hotspots to run their professional lives. 

Eamonn Carey, from Dublin, Ireland, has spoken at conferences and trade shows about the bedouin lifestyle.

"It's a great life to have if you can make it work for you," said Carey, who runs Random Thoughts Media, a mobile and online video production company, and Fanscast.tv, a user-generated site connecting fans with their favorite bands, television shows, teams, and movies. "You're always mobile and you get to hang out in cool coffee houses or bars. As broadband speeds get faster, and as Wi-Fi becomes even more widespread, you'll see more people working like this, particularly in the creative industries, but hopefully in other industries as well."

Freelance Web designer Nathan Swartz of ClickNathan.com agrees.

"We’re close to the point where it's really becoming less important to go into the office," he said. "When you have access to different types of technology, like e-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones, you can always get a hold of someone as easily as you could by walking down the hall."

Bringing in business

When Swartz began working out of cafés in Pittsburgh’s swank East End neighborhoods, he was a little paranoid and wondered whether he would be kicked out for being there too long. But he soon realized that café owners use Wi-Fi as an amenity to help bring people in. 

"At first, I thought it was kind of weird to get free electricity and Wi-Fi all day," he said. "But if these places have a big 'Free Wi-Fi' sign outside and have numerous plug points all over the café, they probably want you in there. No one has ever told me that I should probably get moving, and I’m always buying food and drinks from them during the day." 

Taylor said that this arrangement is good for both café owners and bedouins.

"Since I recognize that this is an economic transaction, I buy stuff at their location," said Taylor, who can often be found at Amante, a hip, Italian café in Boulder, Colorado. "I’ll have breakfast at one place and sit there for two hours, and then go somewhere else for lunch. I’m giving them some revenue and I sometimes bring my friends in and also have meetings there."

On the road again

Richard Hoy and his wife, Angela, of Maine, don’t have to worry about how much coffee or muffins they have to buy because they truly are bedouins, living nomadically from their RV for a couple months each year. Since 2004, they have been traveling all over the country, taking their print-on-demand business, Booklocker.com, along for the ride.

"Our business is entirely Internet-based," Richard Hoy said. "So, as long as we have a connection, we could run the business."

In 2004, Wi-Fi service penetration into campgrounds reached a level where it was practical for them to plot a cross-country trip.

"In addition, T-Mobile began offering flat-rate cellular data service," he said. "It wasn't very fast, maybe the speed of a 9600 baud modem to a 19.2 modem, but it was fast enough to do e-mail. And you could connect while flying down the freeway."

Now, since most campgrounds offer Wi-Fi, the Hoys look for sites that offer good Wi-Fi coverage. If that doesn’t work, they have a few back-up plans.

"You always need a back-up," said Hoy. "We’ve been to places where it’s not always as advertised. The problem with Wi-Fi in any kind of outdoor setting is that there's always signal interference if it has not been professionally installed."

The Hoys have a custom-built bridge/antenna rig that plugs into a wireless router inside their RV. This setup helps pull in weak Wi-Fi signals at campgrounds. About a year ago, they also invested in a satellite Internet setup for RVers from Maxwell Satellite, and later this spring they plan to purchase an iPhone. And if none of their back-up plans work, their last option is checking into a hotel with Wi-Fi capability or looking for nearby cafés.

Safety first

No matter where you work, security is an absolute must for today’s bedouins. With wireless connections, data typically is sent unencrypted through the air between the mobile device and an access point, making it easy for hackers to sniff the data from as far away as the parking lot.

"You are never in your whole life more vulnerable than when you’re sitting in a public hotspot," said Daniel Hoffman, a senior systems engineer at Fiberlink Communications and author of "Blackjacking: Security Threats to BlackBerry Devices, PDAs, and Cell Phones in the Enterprise." "If you don't have the proper security items in place, you'll never know when you're being hacked because the goal is that you don't know."

Some important security tips to keep in mind:

Equip your laptop with anti-spam, anti-spyware, and a personal firewall.

"Make sure that your antivirus and anti-spyware is running and is up-to-date," said Hoffman. "You also want a personal firewall so that person across the room can’t attack you directly. That firewall component should have some kind of intrusion prevention capability to know that someone is trying to attack you and will stop them."

Hoffman said you want the same protection you put on your laptop as you would with your BlackBerry’s and PDAs.

"There is antivirus software available for BlackBerry's and PDAs," he said. "There are also firewall applications as well."

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