The long read: Being on a workation

Work from home is a Covid byproduct, but remote working from any place you want to be in, while being on vacation, is a choice an increasing number of people are exercising



By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Fri 16 Apr 2021, 11:44 PM

Last updated: Fri 16 Apr 2021, 11:49 PM

Conversations around me are morale boosting. It’s of people planning a workation, a neologism with a positive ring to it. Workation — like combining work and vacation — is a concept most pleasing to millions of home-stuck workers, myself included. It has opened up a new possibility of breaking away from the chains that tie us to our tables, chairs or the living room couch in the current situation.

Someone is considering a workation in Georgia and another sets his mind on Spain. Or Greece. In the third voice, I hear mention of the Himalayas. The proposed options seemingly cover all geographical locations. In an inspired moment, I turn to Google and I am astounded by the results. It appears that many countries are in a race to invite or welcome remote workers or digital nomads to their shores, some keen to revive tourism and others to stay afloat until the end of the Covid crisis.

These are agreeable propositions, ones I’d be keen on pursuing too. The idea of lounging in the Caribbean with a laptop is tempting. While I am at it, I look up Barbados (and their Welcome Stamp Visa), Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba and Cayman Islands which have recently launched long-term visa programmes for remote workers. European destinations including Spain, Greece, Estonia and Croatia have followed suit.

Suddenly this information takes the edge of being tied to the home desk. While I make an Excel sheet of expenses involved, a whole bunch of determined remote workers have already set the trail blazing — months ago.

Golden sands and the warm winds of Namibia

When Covid struck and Canada, UK and even the UAE went into lockdown, Dubai resident Samantha Wilkins decided to shift venues. She chose Namibia, a past favourite place.

“Working from different places across Namibia is very refreshing; it is quiet, peaceful and the sense of freedom it gives is priceless. An office environment has many distractions, so I find working remotely puts me in control of how I structure my day, and it allows me to work at the times when I am naturally productive. My business partner Sabine Kuhnis also in Namibia so there is no disruption to our workflow.” Samantha has lived in the UK, the UAE and Canada in the past and co-owns a PR and marketing consultancy that works with clients from around the world, so she has the freedom to work from anywhere.

“When all my home bases went into strict lockdowns in March 2020, I decided to go to Namibia. It is great for social distancing and the cost of living is low. Because of border closures, tourism suffered immensely but it allows me to stay in a beautiful accommodation at heavily discounted rates.” Unlike many other countries, Namibia doesn’t yet offer a specific remote working visa, so she is not sure how long she can stay in the country based on her passport. “As I have dual nationalities, I have been able to re-enter the country on different passports for 90 days at a time and have had my visa extended on occasion. A typical visitor can stay in the country between 30 and 90 days, with the option to extend for a nominal fee.”

There is a slight downside to working remotely too, says Samantha. Like not having a physical team to take creative inspiration or draw energy from. “Having worked in very busy office environments, I understand the value of having a big team to keep me motivated. Of course, there is Zoom but meetings are a poor replacement for true human connection. However, this doesn’t mean I am going back to an office anytime soon. This is a better way to work.”

A workstation in the mountains

A social media strategist and travel blogger Arnav Mathur, who spent the better half of 2020 stuck in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh, India), took off for the mountains when travel restrictions in the country eased.

“I made Manali, a town in the Himalayas, my base and decided to work out of my perch there. For the last six months, this is where I am, working and indulging in a little adventure from time to time whilst working for clients around the country. To me, working from the mountains has a special appeal, a quality that is hard to find in the plains.” A quiet homestay catering to long stay needs is all Arnav needs. “Without sounding conceited, I’d say that the quality of my work has increased.”

“And every now and then, I take a weekend trip to explore some nearby destinations. In the last six months, I’ve interacted with many others like me opting to work away from home or office, so to say that I have been cut off from a social circle would be wrong. At times, it does feel as though the offices have shifted base to the mountains. It is strange because while I love complete isolation while working, a little interaction also helps. At the moment, Manali and other workspaces in the mountains are seeing a high domestic footfall, but local owners are also gearing up to cater to long-stay foreigners on workations as soon as international travel resumes.”

Now that Arnav has embraced remote working, it is unlikely that he will wish this “scenario” to change. “It is noteworthy that many companies are recognising the need to work remotely — and working from the mountains seems particularly invigorating,” he says. “The views and the isolation are an instant pick-me-up at the end of a long workday.”

Delhi-based Prashant Mathawan would agree with Arnav. Prashant has pioneered the hugely-successful ‘Work from Mountains’ concept in India: he realised the potential of a new generation of workforce who could help revive the travel-dependent industry in the mountains if he offered the prospect of combining work and vacation. “Work from Mountains (WFM) is more like a mutually beneficial system that stemmed from the need to connect two ends of the spectrum: help the lockdown affected tourism industry and working people experiencing fatigue due to extended lockdown. We realised that people had, on one hand, the option of working from home and studying online, while on the other hand, there were innumerable number of homestays or small hotel owners in the mountains having a hard time making a living. So, we decided to target two birds with one stone. And WFM came up.”

India has a huge workforce; for many of them, the possibility of remote working options was attractive. And the mountains hold a special place in their hearts. “Connectivity in the mountains is fantastic. In fact, I choose to work and coordinate these initiatives from the mountains myself. They revive energy and boost productivity — which wanes when working from a closed environment, such as home, for extended periods of time,” says Prashant.

What started as a trend has become a standard practice now and will continue to grow even after the world returns to ‘normalcy.’ “The influx of remote workers to the mountains is an indication that people are looking for alternatives to their workspace and are willing to adapt to newer circumstances. We are rather strict with our choice of guests — preferring working professionals as we’d like to keep this strictly work-related.”

Working while experiencing other cultures

Robson Cadore (currently based in Itajaí, in southern Brazil) is a seasoned remote worker but the Covid lockdown ensured an “unintended long” stay in Italy of nearly a year, a phase that he refers to as a “somewhat complicated period” of his worklife. “After 15 years of working in foreign trade, logistics and shipping, I changed careers to photography and content creation to pursue my dream of remote working.” Since this move, he’s been able to work out of more than 50 countries — from big cities to really small villages and isolated beaches in Thailand and the Philippines. “As we create content about travel and lifestyle, being in different places is perfect for creating new and fresh content. It also boosts my photography skills. Being exposed to different cultures, landscapes, people are the fuel for my creativity and photos. Although the constant relocation can be hard and finding the balance between work and play is a challenge, the experience of working from remote locations is exhilarating.”

During the pandemic, in 2020, it was the longest time he spent in one place, in Turin, in northern Italy. Robson managed to return to Brazil subsequently but has to remain there because of travel restrictions. So, instead of being cloistered in his hometown of Tijucas, he chose to work from Itajai. “It’s like being home and yet away from home.” Currently, Brazil hasn’t joined other countries in opening up the scene for overseas remote workers, “but given the popularity of Brazil, it is only a matter of time”.

UAE resident Ananda Shakespeare, who runs a PR agency, prefers working remotely from the beaches. Having just returned from six weeks in Zanzibar, she is preparing for her next destination: Sri Lanka. “In Zanzibar, I worked all day outside. It is easy to stay for months on end there. I ended up meeting different people remotely working there. After working from my Dubai flat since the start of lockdown last year until November, I needed a change of scenery beyond staycations and already knew I can work easily from around the world. All that’s needed is WiFi really, most of what I do can be done online. In any case, many people still prefer a video call over personal meetings, so this works.”

Ananda is looking forward to her Sri Lankan workation at a vegan retreat a little outside Colombo starting next week. Besides working, she’s also looking forward to swimming, reading and long walks in the lush paddy fields. “I intend to continue working remotely in the future, that way I can experience different cultures and places without ever having to compromise on work.”

Former UAE resident Helena Devincenti — a PR executive and freelance journalist — moved to Paris when Covid hit. Her company is Dubai-based but she was taking “full advantage” of her remote working abilities. But when friends invited her to go to Marrakesh, she jumped at the chance to escape the dreary Parisian lockdown and work from sunny Marrakesh. “I’ve been here for over six weeks now and will continue working remotely in the coming months. The benefits of being 100 per cent remote is I can work from virtually anywhere as long as I have my laptop and a good WiFi connection.”

Helena finds she’s able to manage her time much better, and work on my own terms, though sometimes she finds herself having a harder time logging off than when she was in office. “Remote work means you are your own worst enemy! You can choose to be super productive just as you can choose not be productive at all.”

Meanwhile, closer home…

With lockdown restrictions easing in emirates, hotel bookings are shooting up. Resorts, hotels and villas are turning themselves into ‘workation destinations’ and booking up for long stays considering the increasing number of resident work-from-home people opting for a change of location and a breather. As a first in the Middle East, UAE has now introduced a year-long remote working visa (subject to conditions) that will allow employees from world over to live and work remotely in the UAE even if their companies are based elsewhere.

I guess I could do it too — after all, all I do need is WiFi, endless supply of coffee and Covid protocols in place. After all, this ‘new world of work’ made of new possibilities, new standards, and new working relationships is here to stay.

I am torn between a work year in Mauritius or Iceland or an idyllic cottage in the Himalayas, because, well, Cayman Islands is an ambitious plan for a writer and freelance journalist.

Maybe if the Covid lasted long enough for me to save up the moolah, I’d choose Antigua. I’ll tell you why. Antigua has 365 beaches, one for every day of the year.

I just Googled that.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer. She may be contacted at anjaly@anjalythomas.com)


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