Information context and socio-technical practice of digital nomads

Nehad Ali Al-Hadi (The Main Library of SQU, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman)
Ali Saif Al-Aufi (Department of Information Studies, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman)

Global Knowledge, Memory and Communication

ISSN: 2514-9342

Article publication date: 10 May 2019

Issue publication date: 24 June 2019

Abstract

Purpose

Inspired by a task-based approach, this study aims to investigate the transformability of digital nomadic workers’ information practices by capturing the related social and technical perspectives. It concentrates on conducting an exploration of the characteristics of nomadic work from two standpoints: mobile social practices adopted by nomadic workers in their unsteady work activities and the used technical approaches.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper provides a clear understanding and basic insights about nomadic working trends by interviewing 21 Omani digital nomads working in large organisations or small- and medium-sized enterprises, corporation workers, creative freelancers and workers who have a multi-functional set of competencies.

Findings

Although nomadic work is still in the early stages in Oman, the study results indicate that digital nomads are able to create transient work strategies that allow them to establish their own efficient workplaces. They also have the essential abilities to take advantage of technology to support their work achievement. The findings from such research could be used to develop general thinking among workers and organisations about the role of mobile work in improving work performance and investing in modern computing and information technology applications to facilitate successful remote working.

Practical implications

The study finding can help decision makers to address socio-technical matters by ensuring that cafes, airport lounges, public places and co-working spaces can meet the particular requirements of digital nomadic workers. Additionally, the study provides programmers with useful context on workers’ behaviour in relation to distance work, which could encourage them to develop new and local applications and potentially boost nomadic work.

Originality/value

There have been no empirical studies exist that cover key issues related to nomadic workers in the region. This study is the first attempt to provide primary indications that describe and define the nature of nomadic work in Oman by exploring the workers’ information practices in the nomadic environment. The study determines the information context of nomadic work, mainly focussing on how these dynamic contexts frame their information practices.

Keywords

Citation

Al-Hadi, N.A. and Al-Aufi, A.S. (2019), "Information context and socio-technical practice of digital nomads", Global Knowledge, Memory and Communication, Vol. 68 No. 4/5, pp. 431-450. https://doi.org/10.1108/GKMC-10-2018-0082

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

In the past few years, nomadic or mobile work, driven by the mobile technology, has grown tremendously among the workforce around the world. This mode of work helps to free workers from spatial and temporal work limitations. The workers’ orientations towards building their own personal working space, understanding the value of cooperation, accessing high internet speed, acquiring new experiences and looking for appropriate resources and a motivational environment appear to be the essential factors that encourage this trend. Because most of these features are not available in the old-fashioned organisational type of workplace, mobile working has commonly associated with workers who work in creative sectors and who depend mainly on social relationships and informal dialogues with others as major resources for inspirational ideas.

However, due to recent technological and industrial innovations, currently, this trend is clearly spreading to incorporate large number of workers in all sectors. The cost of renting fixed offices has driven many to work remotely as means of reining in estate costs. This can in particular provide a long-term solution for small businesses. For instance, in Oman, the number of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) had increased to 28,900 by 2017 (Riyada, 2017) and not all of them have a stable work space or can cover the cost of rent and facilities at a fixed office. Therefore, the Omani government currently provides start-up companies with shared workspaces, such as Zubair Small Enterprises Centre, Riyada, Alraffd Fund, SAS mobile, SAS virtual reality and SAS incubator, for business development and to encourage them to work distantly.

Inspired by “a task-based approach” (Byström and Lloyd, 2012), this study investigates the transformability of digital nomadic workers’ information practices by capturing the related social and technical perspectives. It intends to offer insights into the above-mentioned concerns by interviewing some nomadic workers in Oman who have been working in different nomadic settings, such as large organisations and SMEs, corporation workers, creative freelancers and workers who have a multi-functional set of competencies rather than a single professional specialism.

To understand the potential information practices and context of nomadic workers in Oman, this paper concentrates on conducting an exploration of the characteristics of nomadic work from two standpoints. These comprise mobile social practices adopted by nomadic workers in their unsteady work activities and the used technical approaches. This involves taking a complete view of how varied information sources and tools mesh with nomadic workers practices and recognising the dilemmas that are likely to appear in this work. Considering these factors in combination identifies how the nomadic work context could shape and modify the workers’ practices. The main research question of this study is, stated as the following:

RQ1.

What are the characteristics of digital nomadic workers based on their social-technical information practices?

Digital nomads

Nomadic working is a new kind of mobile working practice that has become increasingly prevalent over the past few years, driven forward by the growth of the mobile workforce. Relevant studies have identified the basic elements of this concept from different points of view. Meanwhile, various related expressions have emerged, such as “fluid work”, “mobile telework”, “flexiworkers”, “mobile work” and “hot-deskers” (Ciolfi and de Carvalho, 2014, p. 120). Richman et al. (2002) claimed that nomads are people who “change workplaces” (often across national borders), no matter whether they “return home” or not. Also, they are not just “mobile workers”; they perform their work “in various locations such as customer sites, company offices, their homes, vendor offices, planes, and hotels” (p. 9). Su and Mark (2008) emphasised that nomadicity represents an extreme form of mobile work that involves three main standards. First, nomadic workers spend most of their time travelling. Second, they are not associated with fixed places. Finally, regularly, they carry with them and manage their resources so that they can set up temporary workplaces.

However, Rossitto and Severinson-Eklundh (2007) established other criteria to define nomadic work. They framed the concept as work arrangements that consist of:

  • the absence of a stable workplace where work actions can be carried out; and

  • the experience of a complicated system of environmental, temporal and technological discontinuities.

De Carvalho et al. (2011) defined nomadicity as a complicated phenomenon, consisting of a dynamic process of practices, involving interaction between human and technology to accomplish the work in different locations. Moreover, Bean and Eisenberg (2006) describe nomadicity as a “radical new style of work” that is based on workers’ mobility both at and away from their corporation, in paperless actions and on integrated technological tools that support work flexibility.

Other studies expanded the previous limited definitions of nomadic notions by studying new classes of nomadic work, making comparisons among concepts that relate to the nomadic form of work and framing the terms from organisational perspectives. For instance, Harmer and Pauleen (2012) discussed a special class of nomadic worker, which they called “offroaders”. They defined this class as “individuals who, at times and in places of their own choosing, work autonomously on tasks that require the application of high-level skills” (p. 445) and found that these kinds of workers are usually motivated to continuously develop their skills and knowledge to complete the tasks assigned to them and are better qualified to take on responsibility for complicated work than the traditional employees.

Ciolfi and de Carvalho (2014) compared the concepts most commonly used with reference to nomadic work mobility and nomadicity. They assumed that mobility would be used to describe those workers who move from place to place to accomplish their work tasks (e.g. sailors, drivers, pilots and postmen). Nevertheless, nomadicity extends beyond merely the movement aspect and covers more complicated behaviours. It encompasses the mobility of resources that enables the workers to set up their workplace in any location and complete their work activities effectively. Chen and Nath (2005) used the “nomadic culture” notion to describe “a collection of artefacts, values and basic assumptions that provide nomadic workers with the flexibility to work anywhere and anytime they need to” (p.56). It can be concluded that the notion is still emerging and will continue be influenced by both technological and social developments.

Information practice

Practice theory has been applied in various fields and disciplines. Lloyd (2010) stated that this theory emphasises the notion that “practices have a social, historical and political trajectory, that is, they are built up over time, place and context” (p. 251). Moreover, people’s interactions in particular places are an important aspect of gaining information about their practices. Meanwhile, the understanding of practice exceeds the internalised processes and requires understanding of the experimental environment of represented performance. Other studies claimed that the modern practices theories provide a clear insight of human and non-human interactions in sharing tacit knowledge and developing characteristics of knowing and learning across all types of social life and human sociality (Huizinga and Cavanagh, 2011). Therefore, we can assume that practices could occur also in unexpected contexts and not only in regular activities and routines (Schatzki, 2001).

In relation to information field, the appearance of the practice notion was a result of researchers’ interest in finding an alternative concept of “information behaviour” (Savolainen, 2007). Furthermore, the “practice” notion was appealing because of its inclusion of social and cultural dimensions (Lloyd, 2010). According to Jarrahi and Thomson (2017), “practice” theory and the “information practice” concept in information studies have been applied as interconnected approaches. The first has focussed on the uses of explicit information only, for example, the seeking, use and sharing of information. The second approach has examined individuals’ understanding or “literacy” as tacit know-how and has addressed people’s engagement with their informational landscape.

Despite the lack of an established standard meaning for information practices in information studies (Byström and Lloyd, 2012), some definitions are suggested to describe the concept. Lloyd (2011) came up with a sociologically oriented approach to define information practice. She describes it as (p. 285):

An array of information-related activities and skills, constituted, justified and organized through the arrangements of a social site, and mediated socially and materially with the aim of producing shared understanding and mutual agreement about ways of knowing and recognizing how performance is enacted, enabled and constrained in collective situated action.

In terms of the current study, the definition of information practices is more dynamically oriented, based on considering the practices across diverse contexts, during moving and independently of fixed institutions. In this regard, Huizinga and Cavanagh (2011) presented a new version of practice theory for information science through adopting five core premises. One of these premises is that the practices are highly flexible and dynamic sets of actions that are used override the borders of stable organisations. The advantage of this methodological view is that it is better able to capture the highly dynamic nature of those current methods of organising which usually happen in multiple contexts.

According to Byström and Lloyd (2012), most studies in the information science field have used practice theory as an analytical tool to understand how “work tasks” are integrated into workers’ workplace practice. Also, it offers an experimental opportunity to investigate how information practices are shaped through certain situations. For example, it allows the researcher to compare the performance of routine and creative work tasks.

Literature review

The literature in a few cases has partially addressed socio-cultural comparisons of sedentary and digital nomadic lifestyles and practices (Erickson and Jarrahi, 2016; Harmer and Pauleen, 2012; Su and Mark, 2008). Where differences are evident, Harmer and Pauleen (2012), for instance, compared between “offroaders” and officeholders in terms of several aspects including job security, autonomy, use of technology, working hours, workplaces and social and domestic issues.

A number of studies investigated a diversity of facets that determine the nature of nomadic work practices. Some examined the organisational facets of nomadic work (Su and Mark, 2008), and others explored communications between individuals, sites and technologies or how place and work equally shape each other (Brown and O’Hara, 2003). Other studies also studied the social and cooperative role of place (Ciolfi et al., 2012). This section presents a range of publications that support the practical side of this study and highlights the previous assumptions.

In general, the existing literature utilised multiple terms in studying the significant phenomena of nomadic work. However, it is worthwhile to mention that this topic has not been investigated in an Arab-based setting. This section first considered literature that focussed on a range of nomadic work topics. Then these topics were examined based on two primary perspectives: sociological and technical. The sociological perspective is related to the daily work habits, social issues and the growing variety of spaces in which work is now happening, such as airport lounges, home offices, client offices, co-working spaces, cafes and hotels. The technological perspective addresses how nomadic workers are able to deal with technological mobility issues.

Sociological perspective

This section provides deeper clarification of social aspects in nomadic work. In particular, rather than treating the implications of nomadic work issues as a whole, this part explores the major informational elements of everyday nomadic activities to highlight the issues relevant to working places and to argue the role of the workplace in social interactions, motivations and collaborations.

Brown and O’Hara (2003) studied the detailed spatial and temporal practices of mobile work by investigating the importance of places and time to mobile workers. They found that mobile workers tend to choose a location based on practical criteria such as the nature of the tasks to be implemented, the resources afforded and the people involved. Erickson et al. (2014) also found that infrastructures enable mobile knowledge work by providing physical and digital needs for the workers’ performance and enabling them to re-connect with their peers, clients, collaborators and resources.

To highlight the potential effect of place on social approach, Ciolfi et al. (2012) claimed that understanding the interrelationships between place and mobility is clearly connected to social and collaborative relationships. In addition, to highlight the physical and social motivations of the workplace, Liegl (2014) claimed that nomadic workers’ motivation to work at WiFi cafés was shaped by a combination of social, technical and atmospheric qualities. Moreover, De Carvalho et al. (2017) investigated the motivational and contextual aspects that shape the nomadic practices. These motivational forces were choice, opportunity and obligation.

Co-working spaces have also been identified as one of the major workplaces that nomadic workers feel can provide them with the essential resources. Spinuzzi (2012), for example, explored mobile professionals’ views on the essential qualities of the co-working space. The study showed that the workers described co-working spaces from two different perspectives, the first focussing on the physical factors (e.g. space design and location, operation hours, policies, pricing and events), and the second focussing on interactions with co-workers and the corporations and trust that grow from these interactions.

Technological perspective

Most of the studies conducted from a technological perspective have assumed that technology is the primary driver of nomadic work. Several studies confirmed this by addressing the technical issues related to nomadic practices. The initial studies summarised the role of new technologies, enabling independent working and supporting the workflows in nomadic environment.

Studies on a similar theme have provided more in-depth understanding of the contribution of technology in a nomadic environment. Rossitto et al. (2014) explained how people have gained expertise in using “constellations” of technologies in nomadic situations and interpreted that upholding and organising of applications and devices could become a required element of nomadic work. They found that the different technologies are associated and emerge in line with people’s needs and practices in a particular time, place and situation. Also, they claimed that recreating an appropriate workplace could require incorporating several different technologies.

Additionally, Ciolfi and de Carvalho (2014) reviewed the relevant literature on technological issues and highlighted the “mediational” role of technology in the nomadic setting. They framed technology as used in nomadicity as “system support”. They claimed that the development of a new piece of technology is not as essential in the nomadic environment as understanding how current technologies could be suitable within the context of human actions. In terms of the technical difficulties facing nomadic workers, Erickson et al. (2014) identified that mobile workers attempt to overcome these difficulties by using three primary strategies: bridging, assembling and circumventing. They found that the technical constraints could be a consequence of disconnect among competing infrastructures and infrastructural interruptions. Their analysis confirmed that the workers use a sequence of strategic practices that allow them to correct and treat the technological, geographic and organisational challenges that they frequently encounter.

Humphry (2014) examined how technology can support nomadic workers activities by presenting the “officing” concept through three main categories: connecting, configuring and synchronising. The study found that this new technology allows the workers to “save time” by enabling them to be “in two places at once”. In addition, it helps the workers to gain a sense of freedom and flexibility. However, he concluded that despite the role of technology in supporting their work achievements, the workers sometimes loose the feeling of being professionals.

Mark and Su (2010) claimed that the main challenge for nomadic workers is not actually the everyday technical dilemmas, e.g. finding power and connectivity for their smart devices. The problem is more complicated and extensive in that it requires understanding and modifying the unknown infrastructure to use local resources in an effective way. Moreover, it involves more advanced physical infrastructure and nonmaterial resources such as a space with a desk or table or a meeting room offering privacy. It also requires the incorporation of essential human infrastructure such as administrative assistants, information technology (IT) support or technical experts.

Few researchers in the information field have considered information practices in multiple nomadic contexts. According to Thomson and Jarrahi (2015), most information science studies have focussed mainly on the practices of stable workers and workers who have visible and granted work arrangements. In this regard, Cox (2012) explored the applicability of the practices approach to information science. He listed the negative and positive sides of using practice theory in the information field, concluding that the concept of practice is “elastic” and general problems arise in relation to the information approach such as its treatment of context and power.

Nevertheless, there have been attempts to use practice theory within information sectors such as knowledge management and information behaviour. One such attempts was Thomson and Jarrahi’s (2015) on the information practices of mobile knowledge workers. They analysed the workers’ practices in the unpredictable mobile environment through the following five main information practices: ensuring information availability, maintaining technological acuity, keeping social cohesion, upholding work rhythm and enacting personal/professional balance. The study assumed that this kind of work increases the potential for challenges, and the workers go about formatting the information resources in a way that enables them to accomplish work outside of traditional, prepared offices.

In conclusion, to understand the information practice and context of digital nomadic workers in Oman, we have presented the relevant literature related to “nomadic work” by considering the relevant practical aspects. This has involved exploration of contributions on the topic. Building on this foundation, this research focusses on exploring nomadic working practices based on the use of information technology in different places, at different times and in relation to social interactions.

Design

This study adopts a task-based approach to investigate the information practice and context of digital nomadic workers in Oman and sheds light on how the workers’ practices are transformable between different contexts and various mobility environments. The selection of this approach was based on its inclusiveness and its treatment of work practices as an essential part of everyday doings in the workplace. Also, it frames the activities and actions in terms of the available resources and tools (Byström and Lloyd, 2012). This approach allows us to understand the wider context of the topic and to adopt nomadic daily practice as a unit of analysis. It is particularly relevant for understanding the information practices of nomadic workers through examining the technical environment of the workplace, including resources, tools and materials and their role in work performance, either assisting or detracting from it (Byström and Lloyd, 2012).

Methodology

This research is conducted to achieve two main goals: first, to explore major phases of developing information practices in nomadic work setting in Oman and to understand how workers are able to take advantage of the opportunities and resolve the difficulties that they face during their work activities; and second, to determine how dynamic contexts of information frame their information practices.

Due to the lack of existing research on this topic in Oman, this research is exploratory in nature. Such an approach is followed when researchers “have little or no scientific knowledge about the group, process, activity, or situation they want to examine but nevertheless have reason to believe it contains elements worth discovering” (Stebbins, 2001, p. 6).

Most previous literature tended to use ethnographic research methods to gain a detailed understanding of the daily and actual work lives of nomadic workers (Bean and Eisenberg, 2006). Semi-structured interviews were used as a data collection tool. As this is the first endeavour to study the practices of nomadic workers in Oman, it was decided that interview would be an appropriate method for explicating primary practices that might support future studies.

Participants

The study aimed to investigate the practices of digital nomadic workers who work completely independently, for instance, freelancers or those working for differently sized enterprises. The study also intended to consider these workers’ places of work utilised during commuting inside Oman or when travelling abroad. A total of 21 digital nomadic workers in Oman participated in this study.

The pool of participants included workers who vary in terms of mobility, job position, age and gender. The study did not consider detailed demographic information because all participants were Omani residents of 20-40 years of age. Table I provides a summary of the demographic make-up of the study sample.

While there is no official statistics available in Oman for independent workers, the participants were identified through snowball sampling using contacts developed through engagement with AlRudha Oman (a co-working community). This community aims to offer a creative and inspiring place for start-up companies, freelancers and independent workers working in the vast domain of the knowledge industry. As a result, this community was selected as a starting point for finding digital nomadic workers without a fixed place for work.

Participants were selected based on the following conditions:

  • knowledge workers;

  • work during commuting;

  • mobility is part of their daily routine; and

  • use nomadic practices as resources to accomplish their tasks.

Meanwhile, the knowledge workers needed to fulfil the following criteria:

  • have a combination of technical, creative and problem-solving skills;

  • use information resources to complete their work tasks;

  • control their own work time and processes independently; and

  • have the ability to create strategies and planning towards the final achievement of the particular task.

In general, the study followed the common definitions of nomadicity used in the previous literature, formulated as achieving work in and across different locations with the help of computing technologies (Liegl, 2014).

Data process

One of the research data collection methods considered appropriate for exploratory research is interview as this enables the researcher to probe on the spot new issues as they emerge (Gubrium et al., 2012). Therefore, the methodological approach used in this research was qualitative based on semi-structured interviews with 21 nomadic workers. Therefore, in-person interviews were conducted at a location of the participant’s choice, such as co-working spaces and cafés or remotely (via the Skype platform) for participants who were travelling during the period of conducting interviews. The data collection period lasted two months.

Most of the interviews were conducted in Arabic; however, eight participants preferred English. The authors translated the Arabic-based interview’ transcriptions. However, a certified translator who has been familiar with the text was recruited to double check the validity of the translated interview transcriptions.

The interview protocol addressed the digital nomadic workers’ professional backgrounds, working environments, working hours, motivations, their commute, use of technology tools, devices, applications, methods and strategies to reach the essential information and maintain communications and the skills and knowledge that they obtained from their work arrangements. In addition, challenges to their mobility and how they manage their workflow were covered. The interviews ranged in length from 50 to 60 min, and all were audio recorded and transcribed.

Referring to the stated research questions, which aimed to explore and describe the dynamic context of the workplace and environment in relation to digital nomadic workers’ information practice, focussing mainly on the influence of place, technology, psychology, cognitive and social aspects, thematic analysis is considered as a common procedure of analysis in qualitative inquiry. Therefore, it is selected as suitable analytic method for this study (Guest, 2012). The aim was to incorporate the individual information practices and experience of the participants and consider the impact of multiple information contexts on these practices.

Findings

The information practices in the current study were highlighted through theoretical perspectives that can be seen as part of a broad “work-based task approach”. The main aim of this approach is to investigate how information practices and work tasks can be transferred between different contexts and various working environments (Byström and Lloyd, 2012). The information practices were categorised into two essential perspectives that address the social and technical issues of work performance.

The general frame of such practices integrates different information activities that allow day-to-day work efficiency. Moreover, the practice approach points to the work “relationships, experience, beliefs, motivation and requirements” (Byström and Lloyd, 2012, p. 3) that are embodied in nomadic workplaces and determines the challenges and concerns that are associated with nomadic work arrangements. These practices were examined particularly among a group of digital nomadic workers who were interviewed.

The thematic process of analysis applied to the transcripts presented the key concepts that were apparent in the data. These themes are viewed as essential in defining the understandings of all the participants. These were categorised as the “sociological” perspective and the “technological” perspective. These categories also include sub-categories that address the points in greater depth. For example, the sociological category involves “working time” and “work place”, while the “technical” perspective covered the three nomadic workers’ technical practices, which are uploading and accessing information, preserving connectivity and setting the workplace.

Sociological perspective

The sociological perspective comprise the mobile social practices and aspects of digital nomads. It addresses the basic aspects of nomadic work by identifying the working times, routines, motivations, relationships and places preferred by the workers.

Working time

The average hours for nomads working remotely were 9 h daily. Some workers determined their working hours depending on their work tasks or the length it took to finish a task. One of the participants stated that:

It depends on the work. Sometimes I work 6-8 h and maybe less or more until the project is done.

Lack of a fixed office and predefined working hours are two reasons that force workers to spend most of their time on their work. One of the participants highlighted this:

Most time on average depends on the work; I don’t have a base or office.

With the long and undefined working hours experienced by nomadic workers, the results indicated that most of them use time management applications, such as iOS Calendar, Google Calendar, Evernote, Notes, Reminders, Meeting Planner, Siri and Trello. Also, they synchronised calendar data in all devices. Some of them mentioned:

I use Evernote, Calendar and Notes to organise my time.

For time management, I use Reminders, Google reminder, Meeting Planner and Siri.

I use Trello, iOS Calendar and Fantastical […] I prefer to use Trello because it is linked to the Teamwork application and synchronised with iOS Calendar and Google Calendar.

On the other hand, some workers still use traditional “to do lists” to organise and manage their work tasks. One indicated:

As for the time management, I have my own to do list that I write on a piece of paper as handwriting helps me to remember more.

Workplaces

This section aspects related to nomadic workplaces by discussing the nature of work during commuting, the workplaces commonly preferred by nomadic workers, the motivation inspiring them to work in these places and the challenges they face.

Most digital nomadic workers work during their commute by car, train and plane in various ways:

I work most of my time while on the move.

I use my travel time to work, whether it is on the aeroplane or in airports (like I am right now conducting the interview).

One of the digital nomadic workers mentioned that he had a private driver for this purpose only:

I have my own driver to save time while on the move.

Also, some of the workers tend to carry their work equipment with them to work on the move:

I sometimes work during my flights on paperwork, forms and business plans.

When I travel between different places I still work because I carry the work on my laptop or iPad or phone.

In general, most of the digital nomadic workers preferred to work in cafés, at home and in co-working offices or during their commute. The results showed that the percentage of sampled workers who prefer cafes reached 47 per cent, and those who prefer co-working spaces reached 42 per cent, while only 10 per cent prefer working at home.

There were several reasons that motivate the participants to work in such places. Here, it is necessary to address a range of social, physical, technical and atmospheric features. Thus far, the availability of WiFi connectivity, a power supply, food and coffee were the main qualities highlighted as influencing the choice of one environment and place over another. The next sections present the main physical and social infrastructural aspects motivating and supporting nomadic practices.

Social motivations

Digital nomadic workers tend to choose places in which they can create or support relationships and engage in collaborative work. They seek out not only those places that offer structural support but those that involve one of the following factors: people gatherings, inspirational resources, team working, sharing ideas, creativity, innovation, learning from others, interacting with people and exchanging experiences. Some of the participants mentioned the following:

I also prefer places full of people’s voices. These gatherings are a source of inspiration for me.

The workplace provides us with the space to work together with the team. Sharing ideas in the workplace stimulates creativity and innovation.

These are places in which you can interact with people from different fields and meet people who may be a third party in their organisation or freelancers.

One of digital nomadic workers considered that these sociable environments allowed him to share common interests. Also, co-working spaces can enable individual workers to meet people from various fields, providing an opportunity for consultation. Also, they facilitate the building of new networks with people with whom nomadic workers can collaborate:

In the co-working spaces, you can meet a variety of people. You may sit beside designers, marketing specialists or programmers whom you can consult. I am a big fan of collaboration, which can only be found in co-working spaces.

It also helps you to build your own network and know people from different fields whom you can collaborate with.

One of the participants reported that he preferred working in multiple and new places to form different networks of people and gain new ideas:

So this is one of the things […] the reason why I try to diversify my location, because whenever you go to new places there is the possibility that you get new ideas and also there is the possibility of getting to know new people and that can also help with business.

Technical perspective

This section provides evidence of a practical nature that illustrates how technical materials can shape and modify nomadic workers’ information practices. Moreover, it explains workers’ practices concerning the adaptation of technical elements in uploading, accessing, digitising and collating information in the nomadic framework. Retaining connectivity by following certain technical practices is also considered. Although the primary role of technical practices on recreating and relocating the nomadic worker’s workplace is clear, several barriers in nomadic work arrangements may impact negatively on technology functions.

Uploading and accessing information

Due to changeable working arrangements and environments, digital nomadic workers generally have a clear awareness of the importance of uploading information using diverse technical tools. All digital nomadic workers indicated using at least one cloud system, such as iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, WeTransfer, Slack, WD, OneDrive and storage services provided by Amazon, to access, share, retrieve and collate their professional and personal information on any device, in any place and at different times. Some of the participants noted:

I put all my files in cloud memory because I am moving a lot and I can access them from anywhere using the slack or the internal system.

We use Google Drive to back up our files and retrieve them online whenever we need them.

The use of the aforementioned cloud applications allows the workers to transfer their information between various devices (laptops, smartphones and tablets) when they are commuting. One mentioned:

I use DropBox and iCloud to save all my files and I can manage them from different devices.

Digitisation of information

One of the clear dilemmas indicated by the nomadic workers was how to handle and move their physical equipment. Some of them stated:

There are not so many challenges except the ones I mentioned such as the difficulty of moving my equipment.

It is also difficult to transfer a large number of devices.

Therefore, the findings showed that 78 per cent of the workers did not deal with hard copy materials and always tend to transfer their information resources from print version to electronic by using a number of scanning applications and retype the printed data into electronic versions using Excel sheets.

This approach was adopted because of the moving nature of digital nomadic workers’ daily lifestyle, which facilitates access to information from numerous locations, reduces the number of physical resources to be moved and avoids using paper. As a result, they listed various applications that they used to scan paper documents into electronic versions, such as Microsoft Office Scanner, Scanner Pro, Tiny Scanner and Evernote. Some of them used their phone cameras to transfer printed materials into digital format. They stated:

I use the phone camera to back up non-digital information.

I use the Tiny Scanner app to convert them into digital format using my phone.

I save the non-digital files through scanning them using a scanner or the Pro Scanner app on my phone.

Backing up information

In addition to using specific technologies for uploading and digitising information to ensure access to informational resources from any location, digital nomadic workers also back up their information every certain period using extra storage, which helps them overcome unexpected connectivity problems and allows them access to their data even offline. Some of the participants explained:

I also back up my files every two months using a hard disk.

I save and retrieve my files using my own backup in a storage of more than 8 TB, which I can access offline.

Technological practices in setting workplace

Nomadic workers spend a considerable amount of their time on commuting every day, which encourages them to invest this time on their work. This inspires them to modify and use the available resources and apply particular technical practices to complete their work tasks. In this regard, most of the digital nomadic workers considered themselves able to use the available resources in any work situation. Two of the participants explained:

I’m able to use the available resources. Also to work from any place from any device.

Mainly knowing the best places and times to work and using the available resources effectively, also knowing how to work with a team remotely and get jobs done. In freelance life, we work depending on our resources.

In terms of integrating with work teams, colleagues and clients, most of those interviewed mentioned that they use special technologies allowing them to stay in contact with their work teams or clients when commuting, independent of their location, such as Facebook Workplace, WhatsApp, video conferencing, Skype, SOMA, imo video calls, Gotomeeting and zoom.us. The apps available help digital nomadic workers carry their workplace and tasks in their devices:

I also have other applications such as Workplace, which is part of Facebook, to communicate with the team.

I try to still be connected with them as much as I can, whether through WhatsApp voice messages, or video conferencing.

For video conferencing we tend to use a range to see whichever happens to be working fine at the time, e.g. Skype, SOMA, imo video calls, Gotomeeting.com, zoom.us and others.

However, it can also be noted at this point that some of the workers viewed e-communication as insufficient for staying in touch and interacting with work teams. Two of the participants explained:

I lose face-to-face communication with my colleagues in the company.

Other than the challenges I mentioned above, there is not being able to motivate the work team, given my constant travel.

In sum, the results of the study coincided with previous studies assumptions that examined this field and confirm that nomadic workers have the fundamental attitudes, abilities and skills in exploiting the surrounding resources around them to perform their tasks professionally.

Discussion

This paper highlights the main features and practices of nomadic work based on the “task-based approach” practice theory. In general, like other nomadic workers around the world, the workers in Oman utilise the cafés, home and co-working offices as portable working spaces. In addition, the availability of Wi-Fi connectivity, a power supply, food and coffee are the main qualities influencing the choice of working environment. Although these attitudes towards choosing a working place were agreed with findings in some previous studies (Su and Mark, 2008; Liegl, 2014; Humphry, 2014), the task-based approach is unique for its operability in identifying the value attributed to nomadic workers to lower cost when choosing a workplace.

Digital nomadic workers also look for certain physical attributes appropriate to the workplace, e.g. comfortability, long operational hours, parking availability and safety. Additionally, our findings showed that a creative environment empowered production at work. This result was consistent with the argument by Liegl (2014) that “mobility is a resource for the management of freelance creative work” (p. 179).

In the context of social motivations, people gathering, inspiration resources, team working, ideas sharing, stimulation of creativity, innovation, learning from others, interacting with people and exchanging experiences were identified as the major social properties that lead to nomadic work occurring in a particular place as opposed to another. In this investigation, we found that the objective of building new networks with strangers is to collaborate with them and find opportunities for consultation. Therefore, addressing these motivations would generate understanding of the “increasing significance of place in decisions about where should nomadic work be conducted as this work is increasingly made”. (Ciolfi et al., 2012, p. 13).

The common purposes of visiting the cafes in Oman are chatting and drinking coffee, whereas the major requirement from co-working spaces is cooperative environment. Moreover, most nomadic workers sometimes need privacy and concentration to work efficiently, and these places confuse the worker’s workflow due to the irrelevant conversation, crowds and noise level. Beside these issues, these places usually lack a meeting area where the workers can speak loudly as a group and discuss important information.

From a technical perspective, this study demonstrates the significance of the role of technology in the performance of nomadic work and the problems caused by inadequate provision. At the same time, potential practices have been identified that workers can adopt to complete their tasks in a dynamic and unpredictable environment. The study finding suggests that workers apply three main technical practices to ensure access to their data, namely, uploading, digitising and backing up information. Each of these practices serves as a solution to address the technical challenges. For example, they were paying for extra storage capacity in cloud services, backing up their information every certain period in an offline storage format and transferring their printed data into electronic version to reduce the amount of physical stuff they have to carry when on the move. As a result, we can confirm that their information practices are shaped and oriented by the level of mobility (Savolainen, 2006).

Despite the obvious significance of technology in mobile work, a challenge was identified in terms of maintaining connectivity. The study found that in the face of such difficulties the workers would take precautions and adopt practices to minimise the effects of any interruptions. Thus, with respect to our case, the workers demonstrated particular practices entailing preservation of their devices’ battery life and overcoming the problem of sudden internet interruptions. Carrying additional battery storage devices, purchasing high-speed data packages, preparing for poor connection consequences and studying the essential infrastructure of working destinations are preventative practices that illustrated the previous planning taking place around nomadic work to help the workers to manage emergencies that may happen during the performance of their work.

The results of the study also bring into focus how the practices emerged and adapted spontaneously based on the actual work situations. How do these situations inspire the workers to empower the available resources and establish unique strategies to create their workplaces during commuting? Three concrete aspects of this finding were presented by participants; for example, one of the workers invested the moving time in learning new skills by listening to valuable sound clips, another taped his work ideas while he was travelling and the other one recreated working zones by isolating the inconvenience in public places. These findings support the argument of Emirbayer and Mische (1998) on the importance of finding “alternative possible trajectories of action, in response to the emerging demands, dilemmas, and ambiguities of presently evolving situations” (p. 971) in work arrangements.

To develop this perspective, the study examined technical materials and practices that enabled the workers to engage in communication, collaboration and interactions even in inconvenient settings. Video conferencing applications and virtual workplace programmes were the significant methods used by the workers. Therefore, the nature of nomadic work motivates the workers to “find opportunities that support the co-ordination efforts to complete their major work objectives and goals” (Perry, 2007, p.2). Finally, despite the advanced performance of the methods described above, the workers mentioned that they sometimes still need to use physical communication.

The general working culture in Oman, in most industrial and governmental sectors, is quite traditional and focussed on highly structured methods. Also, Omani workers think that freer and remote work arrangements may be risky due to weak demand in the Omani work market. Nevertheless, the digital nomadic workers in Sultanate of Oman showed rich understanding and awareness on controlling the spatial, social, temporal and technical resources of nomadic work actions.

Conclusion and future research

Drawing upon “task-based approach” practice theory, we have illustrated the existence of informational and practical awareness of nomadic work among nomadic workers in Oman. By examining practice from two key perspectives, social and technical, we provided preliminary indicators that framed the reality of nomadic work in Oman. While nomadic infrastructures and culture are still developing, the study emphasised that Omani workers are ready and motivated to work remotely and have the necessary skills to take advantage of the technology to support their work achievement. This appears clearly in relation to their ability to meet challenges, obstacles, and bridge the sudden work interruptions that can affect the nomadic environment.

Findings of this study can be helpful to motivate the Omani organisations, Government and institutions to acknowledge the significance of the nomadic trend and in so doing to take advantage of the potential offered by modern computing and technology applications. Although some ministries have recently started to adopt these applications, for instance, the Ministry of Trade and Industry is using the “Invest Easy” application which allows employees to work remotely from their home and other places (MOCI, 2017), many organisations still lack knowledge and awareness on using the latest mobile technology to support the work fluency.

Also, by exploring the information practices and context of digital nomadic workers, the Information Technology Authority in Oman, which is currently tasked with digitising government services, can gain understanding of how Omani workers are beginning to accept and engage in working remotely and nomadically. Moreover, this study expands their understanding about the importance of creativity of working remotely and enable them to increase the work performance by offering workers more flexibility in terms of working places and hours.

The study underlined that the numbers of nomadic workers in Oman are likely to continue to grow. Most of the participants mentioned the problem of absence of a proper working place. In fact, there are only two co-working spaces in Oman. Therefore, the study’s findings can help decision makers to address this matter by ensuring that cafes, airport lounges, public places and co-working spaces can meet the particular requirements of this kind of worker, for example, offering working zones that provide essential nomadic elements such as private meeting rooms, convenient furniture and lighting, temporary lockers, power resources, food vending machines and internet connection points.

Additionally, the study provides programmers with useful context on workers’ behaviour in relation to distance work, which could encourage them to develop new and local applications and potentially boost nomadic work. For instance, some of the interviewed workers mentioned that they prefer to use internal and local cloud systems rather than paying for additional storage in commercial cloud applications.

Results of the study will also inspire providers of existing local nomadic technologies and services, such as the “Remuh” platform, which aims to connect freelance workers with project managers to provide opportunities for them to work nomadically from any place (Remuh, 2017). Another useful application suggested by this study, and inspired by existing international websites, is an online community platform for Omani nomadic workers, which could act as a guide for digital nomads on finding remote jobs, making friends, organising events, planning trips and meeting up in clubs. Having access to these local applications would facilitate easier communication among nomadic workers in the Sultanate of Oman.

Future research might make further investigations into the social, technical, psychological and cognitive perspectives of nomadic work in Oman to examine in details the use of new technologies in a nomadic setting and illustrate how these technological applications and devices can play a fundamental part in nomadic practices. Another possible future research could be studying the latest experience of the Ministry of Trade and Industry in relation to mobile work. Also, organisational and nomadic work arrangements in Oman could be compared to verify the effect of mobile work in raising work efficiency and improving workers’ performance. This research approach could be extended to involve different institutions and experiences from other regional countries to determine how organisations that have successfully nurtured a nomadic culture can enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage.

Distribution of demographic information

Gender
Male 17
Female 4
Size of organisation
Freelance 3
Micro 4
Small/medium 9
Small/medium and freelance 2
Large and small/medium 3
Knowledge work domain
Business and marketing 10
Photography and production 4
IT solution 2
Social entrepreneurial institutions and event management 2
Education and e-learning solutions 2
Graphic design 1
Total 21

Appendix (glossary)

  1. Zubair Small Enterprises Centre: is an incubator for small businesses. It is a professional body that capitalises on its high professionalism, diversified offered knowledge, wide range of accumulated expertise and its own global and local network and strategic partners. (Zubair Small Enterprises Centre, 2017, para. 2).

  2. Riyada: is the arm for the development of SMEs and the strengthening of their contribution to the local economy through a wide range of business advisory services and training programmes (Riyad, 2017, para.1).

  3. Al Raffd Fund: was founded in the year 2013 as a financial organisation aimed to support, encourage and promote the entrepreneurial growth and advancement among the citizens of Sultanate of Oman (Al Raffd Fund, 2017, para. 1).

  4. SAS mobile: is a centre that is designed to provide the foundation for the development of IT skills and talents, entrepreneurial spirit in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and required professionalism among Omanis, thereby creating and fostering a new and vibrant ICT industry in Oman (ITA, 2017, para. 2).

  5. Mostaql: is an Arabic platform which purposes to match up Arab freelancers with opportunities for remote working (Mostaql, 2017, para. 3).

  6. AlRudha: is a co-working community that aims to offer a creative and inspiring place for start-up companies, freelance and independent workers working in the vast domain of the knowledge industry (AlRudha, 2017, para. 1).

  7. Invest Easy: is an electronic portal that provide fast, easy e-services to help set up and manage companies in Oman and helps minimise paperwork and save costs and time (MOCI, 2017, para. 1).

  8. Remuh platform: is an Omani platform that aims to connect freelance workers with project managers to provide them with the opportunities to work nomadically from any place (Remuh, 2017, para. 4).

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Further reading

Bogdan, C., Rossitto, C., Normark, M., Jorge, P. and Eklundh, K.S. (2006), “On a mission without a home base: conceptualizing nomadicity in student group work”, in Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications in 7th Conference in Carry-le-Rouet Conference, France, 2006, Oxford, Amsterdam, p. 23.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Professor David Bawden from University City of London, who has provided valuable feedback and guidance. The authors also would like to thank AlRudha Oman for helping and providing with a place to conduct the interviews. Furthermore, the authors are grateful to all participants for giving their time to complete data collection.

Corresponding author

Ali Saif Al-Aufi can be contacted at: alaufia@gmail.com

About the authors

Nehad Ali Al-Hadi (Msc) is a Librarian and a Content Marketer at the Main Library, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She received Msc in Information Science from the City, University of London in 2018. She is a member of many professional information associations such as ALA, CILIP and IFLA. Her current research interest focusses on digital nomad practices, social media and information marketing.

Ali Saif Al-Aufi (PhD) is an Associate Professor at the Department of Information Studies, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. He received MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh, USA in 2001 and PhD in Information Management from Curtin University, western Australia, in 2007. He is coordinating the MA programme in Library and Information Science at SQU, Oman. He has successfully published research papers in regional and international recognised journals. His research interests include information management, scholarly communication, social informatics and philosophy of LIS.