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Americans are booking working ‘vacci-cations’ before office life resumes

White-collar employees are taking working vacations while they can, and hoping the trend sticks post-pandemic

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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After more than a year of working full-time from inside her San Bruno, Calif., home, her husband and oldest child almost always nearby, Victoria Gryn needs a change of scenery. She is packing up her family and decamping to a rented condo in Costa Rica for a month this summer, where she will spend two of those weeks doing her job remotely for the Silicon Valley insurance company where she works.

In some ways, her workdays will be the same as always. She’ll wake up and log on to her company-issued computer with a cup of coffee in her hand and start checking emails and Slack messages before the day’s tasks. Everything else will have a vacation tint to it. It’s the kind of long trip she has always thought about taking, though without the working.

“I’ve been dreaming about going someplace like that for a long time,” Gryn said. “I always consider, should I take some gap between jobs? Should I take unpaid time? Then I think, I might lose my job. How can you go somewhere [for that long] without taking any hit on your career?”

This summer presents an unusual opportunity for many office workers in the United States. It’s sandwiched between a wider availability of vaccines and office reopenings, kids are out of (real and virtual) school, and travel restrictions are being eased across the country. Technology has also caught up to remote work over the past year, with a massive rollout of new options like improved video chat and collaboration tools. Many vacation destinations such as hotels and Airbnbs have specifically upgraded their WiFi connections to appeal more to workers.

For those who can work remotely but have limited amounts of vacation time, it‘s a chance to use the past year’s flexibility to do their jobs someplace other than a spare bedroom. And after a year of working from home — often juggling the roles of caretaker and dutiful employee, separated from family, or coping with anxiety around the pandemic — it is a much-needed mental health break for many.

So people are booking working vacations, moving their remote offices to be near parents they haven’t seen for more than a year or to tropical locales, and thinking about what the post-covid work-life balance should look like.

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Travel bookings are already booming, thanks to the past year of pent-up demand for a change of scenery. Major airlines including United, American and Delta all recently reported bumps in reservations.

Airbnb, which added an option for month-long stays early in the pandemic, has continued to see an increase in longer-term bookings. Last year, it found that 60 percent of people booking longer-term stays were working or studying while there. Online reservation giant Booking Holdings, which owns Kayak, Booking, Priceline and OpenTable, said it has seen an increase in travel reservations and expects it to continue for the summer.

Being able to work remotely, let alone from a location far from the office, is a luxury for the few. Last May, when lockdowns across the country were at their peak, 35 percent of people reported working from home because of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A year later, many offices are already reopening, and only 18.3 percent of people said they were still working from home in April specifically because of the pandemic.

Many people are still waiting to hear what their office’s policies will look like, but a number of companies have been announcing plans for workers to return to the office across the country, bringing them back in phases. Amazon announced plans to return to an “office-centric culture” and expects most workers will be in the office by the fall. Ford will give 30,000 employees the option to work anywhere, while Goldman Sachs is asking most of its workers to return to their offices by June.

Some companies are also adding a new option that could make remote vacations the norm: Google is giving workers up to four weeks of “work from anywhere” time a year after they return in September. U.K. financial start-up Revolut said it will allow its workers two months a year to do the same, while finance firm Lazard will let investment bankers work from any location for one straight month a year.

“I find myself very tuned in to the fact that I need to be diligent, making certain that I’m not just on vacation,” said Matthew Fields, an engineer at a utility company in Bloomington, Ind.

During the pandemic, Fields went fully remote and purchased a second home in Naples, Fla., with his wife. His company hasn’t released its new policies concerning remote work, but he’s optimistic that it will adapt and include more flexibility. While he’s doing the same amount of work, he says he’s able to enjoy the time more, like taking his dog for a walk during breaks.

“Enjoying where you are is really refreshing instead of trying to wolf down a sandwich,” Fields said.

The hunger for long working trips isn’t necessarily because people love their jobs. Unlike many countries, the United States has no federal minimum amount of days off, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average amount of vacation in the United States is 11 paid days annually, after a year of service.

Countries in the European Union have a minimum of 20 days off a year, and many countries around the world guarantee up to 30 days off a year. Even when the time is available at U.S. companies, say at the increasing number of start-ups offering “unlimited” time off, some workers fear taking it could be harmful to their careers.

If they can’t take time off, being able to work in a different location gives workers another way to reconnect with loved ones. In non-pandemic times, being able to work near families can help people who need to care for sick or elderly relatives without having to quit their jobs.

The future of remote work

For Jorge Sanchez, an entertainment attorney in New York City who works West Coast hours, the combination of vaccines and remote work means he can finally see his mother and sister. Sanchez and his partner, Robert Maril, have two working trips planned for this summer, both to see family, in Tampa and then Kansas.

Maril hasn’t been able to see his parents in over a year. Sanchez doesn’t know if his firm will go entirely remote and wouldn’t mind a hybrid schedule, but hopes to keep some of the better work-life balance he’s found during the pandemic. There’s no more commute, no spending $15 on a salad at lunch, and he’s able to step out during the day for a walk.

“The change transcends my work. I’m happier and I can focus on my job and have a break,” Sanchez said.

The idea of working far from a central office isn’t new. Digital nomads, people with jobs that they can do from anywhere, were practicing this before the pandemic, roaming around the world to code from camper vans in Death Valley or putting in hours as a virtual assistant from a long-term rental in the south of France. Others do their jobs entirely remotely mostly from home, but with no office, and can move their operation to different locations when needed.

It’s far from the norm, however, especially for salaried full-time employees with benefits. Until now, many hadn’t considered it an option that would ever apply to them. And with office reopening plans coming into focus, they worry it won’t again.

“When you talk about people feeling they want to take a work-cation now, they want to do something quick before they go back. It’s that ‘going back’ that’s fearful for people,” said Jody Thompson, CEO of CultureRx, a management consulting businesses. “They fear that idea that they might have to go back to a structure that just doesn’t make sense for today’s workforce.”

Thompson works with the companies that are ready to make the leap and helps them transition into a partial or fully remote workplace. The idea is that instead of tracking employees’ time, a company focuses on their output, the actual work. Thompson says right now, companies are typically more focused on controlling when and where people work. She has seen a jump in interest from new companies wanting to change permanently after the pandemic, but she says many are still deeply ingrained in their old ways because of how they view work.

“The discomfort today that managers have or organizations have is because we’re not holding people accountable to the actual work, we’re holding them accountable to the time clock,” Thompson said.

The past year has been eye-opening for Martin Hamburger, the founder of Hamburger Group Creative, which produces political advertisements. The pandemic has forced his company to come up with creative tech solutions for working on large video files remotely, and sold him on allowing his workers more freedom to work far from the office in the future. That includes doing their jobs from vacation-like destinations.

“We’re a creative business and people have to refill the well. You can’t be creative on-demand all the time, you have to get back in touch with your muse,” said Hamburger, who has nine full-time employees now but more during election seasons.

Some think a constant connection to the office through smartphones, Slack messages and laptops is bad for work-life balance, but Hamburger believes the opposite. His phone can be a way for him, and his employees, to be free to work from anywhere, he said. Hamburger has experienced it firsthand during the pandemic, working far from his D.C. home for seven months, in an extended, not entirely planned work-vacation that came to an end when he returned to the East Coast in April. Hamburger has been in Sonoma, Calif., and Avon, Colo., where he’s able to work East Coast hours and stop early enough to go skiing, hiking or fly-fishing.

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For the past six years, Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, has been studying work-from-anywhere companies, where employers let go of geographical control. It has been done across various industries, including at the United States Patent and Trademark Office which lets a portion of its employees work remotely from the location of their choosing part or full time. He has found productivity goes up when people can work from home some of the time and work remotely all of the time. In both situations, employees reported a greater sense of loyalty to their company.

He also said that military spouses and women — whose jobs can disproportionally take the back-seat in dual-career households — have benefited from fully-remote work options. It can let them keep their job when their partner has to relocate.

“For both white-collar jobs and for lower-paying jobs, work from anywhere can enable workers to have more real income if they relocate to cheaper locations,” said Choudhury in an email.

Some companies are banking on more flexibility. Cruise ships, which were early superspreader locations for covid-19, were forced to shut down for most of the past year, but cruise lines are planning for future bookings. Princess Cruises, which is owned by Carnival, is hoping some people might want to work remotely, from the sea. The company is marketing new satellite Internet services as perfect for doing your job or remote classes while on a cruise. Destinations such as Hawaii have used the pandemic to launch remote-work programs to make up for drops in tourism revenue.

And cities are hoping that a long-term shift in how we work means they can attract people permanently, like Tulsa. The city has a three-year-old program called Tulsa Remote that pays people $10,000 to move to the city and work remotely for at least a year. It has already brought more than 700 people to the city, 45 percent of whom work in technology. During the pandemic, its applications increased fivefold. The organization hopes to bring a diverse and talented pool of younger workers to the city and, eventually, attract more businesses looking to hire them.

Not everyone wants to be rid of offices, but they still want a future where working isn’t about the location. Rajiv Raja has always had some freedom, but he stuck close to his office most of the past year. While he knows people who have relocated entirely during the pandemic, he’s on an H-1B visa and needs to be in commuting distance of his employer’s Bay Area offices most of the time. A software engineer at Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, he’s planning a month-long trip to Hawaii with his family over the summer, where both he and his wife will work.

The company is planning to allow much of its workforce to be remote up to 50 percent of the time going forward. For workers like Raja, just having the option is the best perk he can hope for. Some days he may want to commute south to the office to see his team in person, others he may want to work from home or even an Airbnb.

That’s all many employees want, Thompson said. “What people want is the choice, the control, every single day to manage the things they need to manage in their lives and work.”