BBC News

The digital nomads making the world their office

By Jessica Bown
Technology of Business reporter

Published
image copyrightThinkstock

Imagine working remotely from a state-of-the-art office in central Lisbon, before heading to the beach for some some surfing at the end of the day.

Technology such as instant messaging and video conferencing has given us the freedom to work from just about anywhere at any time.

The Surf Office is one of a growing number of companies aiming to meet the needs of so-called digital nomads who use this freedom to combine work and lifestyle.

Surf Office provides workspace and accommodation in Lisbon and Gran Canaria - and afternoon surf trips and lessons.

In Lisbon, for about £47 a night, you can get a private room, shared kitchen and bathroom, plus access to modern office facilities and meeting rooms.

Meanwhile, a new start-up, Roam, whose co-living, co-working locations include Miami, Bali and - from this week - Madrid, promotes itself as "an experimental community testing the boundaries between work, travel and life". You can sign up for a week, or months.

image copyrightSurf
image captionSurf says its facilities offer a new way of working for the mobile generation

Peter Fabor from Surf Office says: "Our clients include both freelancers and employees who can work remotely. The way things are going, I think working this way will become the norm within the next five years."

Office space halved

The trend for working remotely is already well established. In the UK, for example, more than four million Britons already work from home, according to the latest official statistics.

Many of these people work via fully-connected virtual offices - a far cry from the days when home workers just had a phone and email.

For employers, it means they can avoid costly overheads such as rent and electricity.

Donna Sewell, founder of law firm Legal Edge, is convinced of the benefits.

"We've never had large offices," she says. "In fact, in the last 12 months we have halved what office space we did have to a modest two-desk room for a team of 15 lawyers.

image copyrightLegal Edge
image captionDonna Sewell hopes one day to use virtual reality technology to hold meetings at her legal firm

"We can provide a better service using cloud-collaborative working tools such as Google's corporate suite and Google doc."

David Locke, global principal architect at computer company VCE, which specialises in IT systems incorporating mobile, cloud and social ways of working, says more and more companies are moving away from the traditional office model.

"We are seeing an increased demand for solutions that allow our customers to deliver secure virtual desktops and mobile device management for employees no longer based in offices," he says.

One of his financial customers has introduced a policy where two people share each desk, but take turns to work from home.

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Mr Locke, whose head office is in the US, sees big advantages to working from his home in Surrey.

"I can run my business using a phone and laptop, as long as I have half-decent wi-fi to connect to corporate tools," he says. "Working from home means fewer distractions and no time wasted commuting between locations."

Technology he relies on to work efficiently include conference and video-based calls, instant messaging services and corporate forums.

"Our main teleconferencing service is a blended solution from Cisco and BT, with Cisco providing the WebEx web conferencing platform, and BT running the global audio dial in.

"For video conferencing, we use Cisco's TelePresence solution, which provides HD-quality video links between global locations."

Working from afar

New technology also creates opportunities to move permanently to another country.

image copyrightRoam
image captionRoam's latest office-living facility, which opened in Madrid this week, looks a far cry from a cheap B&B

Jamie Burns at Running Repairs, an IT networking company based in the French Alps, has seen a big increase in the number of Britons working virtually from the region.

"With technology becoming more mobile and cloud-based so too are offices," he says. "We have helped many businesses set up local offices, normally with head offices in the UK."

The technology driving this trend includes messaging services such as WhatsApp that allow co-workers to stay in touch for free wherever they are in the world.

"One of my clients uses a WhatsApp group chat to communicate with all its seasonal staff," Mr Burns says.

"Few of the staff have French phones, so using a free messaging service such as WhatsApp saves the company a lot of money."

Slow broadband

However, connectivity can be an issue in more remote villages.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionPoor connectivity can make remote working frustrating

"This winter we finally got 4G connectivity in most of the region's high-end resorts, including Val Thorens and Val d'Isere," Mr Burns says.

"However, broadband speeds are still nowhere near where they should be, and some of our clients in small villages are still struggling with between one and two megabits per second."

Head in the cloud

Advances in satellite internet, and mini solar panels that allow the charging of devices on the move - without electricity - will make working from isolated locations more accessible, Mr Burns says.

"Mini travel solar panels are already proving popular. And mini hydro-generators are available too. Soon you will be able to travel for weeks without sight of civilisation and still remain completely connected.

"Whether that is a good thing remains to be seen," he adds.

Keen to run your business virtually? The good news is that you don't actually need a huge amount of cutting-edge technology to set up an office "in the cloud".

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionSome remote workers would miss the "water-cooler moments" that provide office interaction

Mr Burns says: "With software such as Dropbox you can store all your information in the cloud and within reach no matter where you are."

And advances in virtual reality technology, enabling people from the four corners of the globe to interact in a three-dimensional environment, will make virtual offices even more attractive.

Office gossip

There are disadvantages to not physically spending time with your co-workers, though.

"Not being in the office does mean missing out on 'water-cooler moments' or ad hoc chats that lead to new ideas," says Mr Locke. "Using any form of technology limits this kind of interaction."

Legal Edge's Donna Sewell agrees. "Even with a virtual head office 'in the cloud', we would continue to make use of shared office space from time to time.

"No matter how good the technology, I believe we all benefit from some face-to-face time together."

So, even for those people who increasingly can choose when, where and how to work, they may find the occasional commute to the office a necessity.

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