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June 2008

Designing for Nomadic Work
by Norman Makoto Su and Gloria Mark


Nomads do not live to migrate; they migrate to live. People who pursue a nomadic strategy do so for quite good reasons.
– [Salzman, p. 40]


A new type of mobile work practice is emerging: nomadic work.
Strictly speaking, nomadic workers (NWs) travel to where the work is. Paul Erdös, the Hungarian mathematician, was the prototypical NW who wandered from university to university to collaborate with others. Organizations are beginning to experiment increasingly more with nomadic work as a practice where employees travel most of their work time to meet with others inside and outside of the organization: with workgroups, customers, vendors, or other colleagues. In this paper, we present results of a study of a large distributed Fortune 500 company that, based on an independently conducted survey, identified approximately 20% of its workforce as NWs.


We expect that nomadic work will increase. Two key factors are enabling people to be more mobile in their work. First, the technological maturity of IT has led to the practical realization of a mobile workforce. Enhanced power longevity, integrated wireless networking, and practical portability for laptops as well as the pervasiveness of mobile device infrastructures for BlackBerrys and cell phones free employees from being tethered to a single location. Second, some companies view mobile work as a cost-effective measure: flexible hours and movement allow frequent face-to-face interactions to satisfy customer needs; the maintenance cost of spaces shifts from the company to the employee; and employers feel that freedom from the potentially demoralizing containment of cubicles leads to increased worker productivity and a better work/life balance. Yet there is a contrary view: problems with mobile work have been described that plague both workers and management. Concerns such as stress, decreased work productivity and quality, security issues, and high management costs have been identified.


This leaves us wondering about the experiences of NWs who travel far more than mobile workers whose technology use and practices have been previously studied such as those who travel occasionally [16] or who are locally mobile within a company campus [5][13][6]. NWs are perhaps an extreme form of what Garrett & Danziger [8] term “flexiworkers”: people who spend at least 10% of their work time in the office, home, and the field. NWs might also be considered a variant of “road warriors,” but are yet different, as road warriors generally travel set routes between the home and client sites [1]. Nomadic travel is far more diverse. We consider nomadic work to have three criteria. First, NWs travel most of their work time. Second, most NWs are not associated strongly with any single home office, nor bound to any particular office. They work wherever they happen to be: at any company site, at home, at a customer site, in hotel rooms, airports, and so on. Finally, NWs are constantly carrying, managing, and reconfiguring their own resources, whereas traditional office workers can rely on a stable set of resources in their “home” space.


How NWs manage and use their resources to support their work
practice is especially critical when considering how to design for
nomadic work. We approach this question from both a technical and organizational perspective as the challenge of finding and using resources is situated in a larger organizational context. The organizational NW must constantly seek human and technical resources to satisfy their needs, which are intricately intertwined with organizational aspects. Therefore, we argue that to deeply understand how to design support for nomadic work practices, it is necessary to understand the nomadic life in situ in the organization. To our knowledge, though there have been studies addressing social aspects of mobility (to be discussed shortly), there has been a lack of attention to how organizational design impacts nomadic work. Our perspective on design views NWs in the context of their organizational “society.”


A full copy of the paper (PDF) can be found here.