As the pandemic ground on, employees continued to show that they could and would work from anywhere. Even when they weren’t ‘working’, people needed to look busy. The busy bodies gave others cause to vent and a new counter mantra on social media was born: ‘You don’t have to be productive during a pandemic’.
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes looked forward to the twenty first century, predicting that ‘for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem - how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’ Keynes was right in thinking that mechanisation would reverse the dial on manual labour, even if his vision of a 15-hour working week never materialised. But he probably didn’t anticipate the optimising of leisure time for various work related activities - working on one self, working out, working on a side project.
When the pandemic made working from home a matter of public health, companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon extended the stay at home directive beyond government guidelines. For them, worker productivity was proving to be as reliant on a good Internet connection as face-to-face interaction. Google canceled its biggest planned acquisition of office space for 2020 – 202,000 square footage in Dublin – and made it known that they could not commit to office expansion while ‘looking at what the future of work looks like’. As the pandemic ground on, employees continued to show that they could and would work from anywhere. Even when they weren’t ‘working’, people needed to look busy. The busy bodies gave others cause to vent and a new counter mantra on social media was born: ‘You don’t have to be productive during a pandemic’.
In the middle of February of this year, I checked into Verse Collective, accommodation overlooking the quiet Dikwella Beach on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. I was there on an old fashioned holiday. Everyone else was on a newer trip – the workation. Verse defines itself by its offerings: café, rooms, music studio, surf shop and cowork space. It’s a beguiling set up – petite tropical gardens occupy the space where a wardrobe might stand in a regular hotel room. Semi-enclosed rooms don’t come with an attached bathroom but do come with a view of the open sky. The building design makes on point use of poured concrete for its flooring, fixed furniture and a skate ramp; well worn cane and handsome teak furniture are scattered artfully about.
It’s my first afternoon at Verse and I’m having a coffee in the co-work space, for no other productive reason than it’s so inviting. Every so often, a green shimmer bounces off the wooden shutters filing the length of a coconut grove-facing wall. As I go from trying to read a book to reading all the interesting human sights around me, I also go from wondering how anyone gets any work done to skepticism that that is even the point in being here. What seems clearer about this crowd is that they share in a certain body language – the digital nomad appears at their most purposeful when they’ve just sat down and are emptying a backpack of its mostly tech contents (laptop, smartphone, a few hard shell cases). Then they look at the drinks menu. And the nomad doesn’t go anywhere without a steel flask – you’ll be hard pressed to spot a plastic water bottle anywhere on the grounds. Coincidentally, in or around my visit, Verse posted an image on Instagram of a hipster millennial at his laptop, his hard drive and power bank scattered in desultory fashion across a handsomely grained table. The caption reads ‘come hang out in the cowork. You don’t even have to work. You can just put in your earphones and stare at the palm trees. No one will know.’
Postcovid, workationers are few and far between in Sri Lanka. The gang of women friends, looking like swimwear models, who used to grace Verse’s Insta-feed, every few posts, haven’t appeared since mid-March, and the account has been idle since April. If the Corona-virus has stalled the industry supporting workcations in Sri Lanka, it has rebooted an emerging market in India. The pandemic has meant different things for different people. Experiences around lockdowns and the latter ‘living with Covid’ set of restrictions aren’t static either. If everyone has found themselves somewhere along a spectrum of ‘Covid personalities’, the one, starting out, who was thriving on online courses, personal projects and a sense of greater productivity at work is also a candidate for pandemic burnout. Perhaps this is why I’ve heard so many of my friends in Bangalore express the vaguely formulated desire to get away to the mountains. When local travel bans started to lift in around June, a small but significant cohort started to see a wayout of homes that, depending on circumstance, had started to feel like places of captivity with the addition of work pressure. A work frazzled woman called Shali describes, in The Times of India, her path to a workacation in Chestnut Himalayan Lodge, Uttarakhand: ‘with no maids, and with not much help I was reaching for a breakdown. So we finally got the covid test and headed to the hills’. Shali was working from a homestay affiliated to the social entreprise Homestays of India. In April, this organisation published a blog post saying ‘we strongly believe tourism will be ‘reinvented’ post C-19 and will go in the right direction.’ By June, they had added the workation tab to their website and are offering weekly and monthly stays from as far north as Kashmir to Kerala in the south. Luxury and budget hotels are offering ‘work from hotel’ packages and hostels, such as ‘Zostel’, are making themselves ‘workation-ready for people staying for longer time periods’, says its co-founder Dharamveer Singh Chouhan.
Like many things, the tourism industry’s escape from work pitch is in social isolation. Taking work with you is the newest aspiration. In August, The Hosteller dropped its first workcation photo on Instagram showing a young man with his feet up on a table looking out onto an emerald green, picturesquely clouded Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh. The caption wraps the promise of a holiday in the security of a job and it’s hard not to be seduced: ‘This photo is giving us major chill vibes! How amazing it would be to wake up to the wondrous mountains, taste that first sip of hot sweet chai and see the clouds float by. If this is our morning, then the rest of the day is bound to go swimmingly too!’ The jungle walks, river walks, short hikes, bonfire nights, movie nights and games that The Hosteller used to offer to holiday makers are now being sold to their longer stay customers who need to unwind after a day’s work.
Restrictions over the last few months on social gatherings have left many to their own, literally, devices, making them more likely to spend their time ‘doom scrolling’, a post-covid activity already being linked to deteriorating mental health. For anyone who can jump the work-from-home ship and take their job on a workation, a remote destination probably represents short-term protection against the psychological stress of living with Covid. A homestay in Kasol, making the Instagram promise of ‘a paradise for #WorkFromHills and anyone seeking peace in the lap of nature’, seems as though it’s speaking directly to a widespread mental fatigue. It’s not surprising that demand for workations in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand outstrips other states, among the IT professionals who are the mainstay customers for Homestays of India’s workations. An email from Vinod Verma, Co-Founder of Homestays of India, gave me the impression that, in the case of these young people, gratitude is replacing the consumer mentality of old. ‘We received no negative feedback. Because people were locked at home for months and feeling frustrated. Workation is such a respite for them. They are more than happy with whatever they are getting’, Vinod explained to me.
It’s hard to imagine getting a good night’s sleep in the group dorm of a backpacker hostel, never mind putting in a productive day of work in one. And yet, workations feature prominently in the most up to date growth plans of Zostel – a fast-growing Indian chain of hostels catering to millennials and Generation Z. While opportunities to work in the peace of the countryside is undoubtedly an attractive option for people looking to get away, research is already emerging to suggest that as a result of the exodus from offices, people are working longer hours, attending more meetings and sending more emails. Not only is leisure time retracting, work is starting to look a lot like leisure, and the other way around also. Previously, the #Escape to the Hills# call to action would have implied bad Internet connection, a hidden bonus for anyone who wanted to get away from work. Not so anymore. Vinod explained to me that enhancing Internet connectivity was their first priority in adapting their business to the new market for workations. ‘Now all our homestays providing workation are Wi-Fi enabled and we are enlisting more and more’, he told me. For the urban dweller, the hills no longer only signify leisure; post-covid, for more and more people, they are places conducive to working online; and when scenic views appear in the background of a Zoom call, there is the ostensible reason behind the work-call and then there is the prestige of working in a 'getaway' destination.
Interestingly, in his conversation with me, Vinod observed that requests for 3-4 month stays in July and August have changed into ones requesting month-long lodgings. This suggests that what people are looking for is a break and are not in fact ready to commit to a new place of work. The timeframe also suggests that people are taking workations instead of holidays. It might be easier to justify travelling, the activity most linked to accelerating the pandemic, if the reasons for it are tied to work, falling within the pale of what we’ve come to categorise as essential as opposed to nonessential travel. When Keynes wrote about the role science and technology would play in the future of work, he made a logical connection between machines doing more work and humans doing less of it. He hadn’t anticipated that during a pandemic, the justification for taking a holiday would be made in the guise of work. But the aspirations fuelling the rise of the workation are nothing new. For years, being busy has been seen as a form of social capital. Self-actualization, first, and then money is work’s reward, at least for those who can economically afford to think like this. Social media has enabled us to display just how well we’re using our time and to what end. The work that goes into mediating a version of the self that fits into current ideals around human optimisation, an always-on mode amplified through WFH and workations, leaves less and less time for genuine leisure. And oftentimes, the hardest part of working is making it look like leisure. Perhaps, that is why one-month workations are proving enough for the millenials lucky enough to be heading for the hills.
- Prof. Aileen Blaney, Associate Professor – Film Studies