Can Co-Working Vacations Offer a Better Work-Life Balance?

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Alternative travel companies are now offering what they are calling "co-workations" -- a combination of a creative business trip and inspirational adventure holiday for location-independent professionals.

For the last couple of decades, technology has slowly but surely changed the way the work. More and more people are working remotely from home, or striking out on their own as freelancers and joining up with collaborative co-working spaces to get some of the same social connections and added networking benefits usually enjoyed the conventional office employee.

But why work where you live if you can take your work with you and travel? The rapid growth of co-working hubs around the world are fueling an emerging trend where some entrepreneurs, self-employed digital nomads and remote professionals are opting for what's called a "startup retreat", "co-working retreat", "co-working vacation" or a "co-workation" -- a more structured, exotic version of a regular co-working space membership, one could say.

The details are different from one program or place to another, but generally, for a fee, one can live abroad for a longer period of time, work in a relaxed, community setting during the day, and during the evenings and weekends, explore a new city, hang out with fellow remote workers, or attend an event in-house for learning new skills.

Impact Hub

Impact Hub/CC BY-SA 2.0

Balancing work with leisure, abroad

In tackling that elusive search of work-leisure balance, some alternative travel companies like Hacker Paradise, Remote Year and We Roam are offering co-working vacation packages to individuals and groups in faraway locales in Asia, Europe and South America. Timing can range anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and can even make some financial sense, writes Ally Byers over at the Daily Dot:

The concept is simple: The vast majority of entrepreneurs and startup businesses are online-based; therefore, they can work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection. Why not spend a few months working from, say, a beachfront in Bali? So, the logic goes, living costs will be so much lower that moving out there for a few months will not only allow you to focus on your goal undistracted, but you'll actually save money you'd otherwise be spending on sky-high rent in San Francisco or Brooklyn.

While you could always take the time to plan out your own travels and just at a minimum sign up for a membership co-working space abroad, organized co-working retreats can offer a lot in comparison to a solo venture. Some companies offer all-inclusive packages that include accommodation, cleaning services, membership in the local co-working space, SIM cards, organized group excursions, educational workshops on business development and even language classes, freeing up more time for participants to concentrate on their own projects.

All that behind-the-scenes prep isn't cheap though: prices can range from a couple hundred of dollars for a week's participation in programs like those offered by Hacker Paradise in South Korea, Thailand and Bali (without accommodation), or up to a whopping $27,000 like the program offered by Remote Year, which selects 75 co-working "remotes" and shepherds them through 12 cities in one year. While this last one seems insanely expensive, there is interest for trips like these where all logistics are taken care of: according to Outside, the company received over 50,000 applications for this year's program.

Giorgio Montersino

Giorgio Montersino/CC BY-SA 2.0

How sustainable are co-working vacations?

That's a big question with no definitive answers yet. While it's great that people are eschewing the grind of the daily commute for working remotely, doing that in another country can bring up a whole host of other environmental issues, like having to fly there in the first place.

It's a question I posed to Kirsty Thompson of Coworkation earlier this year, during a workshop in Hubud, a co-working space in Bali, Indonesia. Thompson explained that an increase in tourism can help local economies, in addition to expat remote workers establishing long-term business relationships and trading skills with locals.

While there's no doubt an additional influx of a new kind of co-working tourist can strain local resources further, Thompson added that there is a certain element of social responsibility involved with setting up such programs, and that co-working hubs are no different from the rest of the world. The key is to "co-give", as she put it. Many digital nomads who 'travel slow' and stay long-term in various places end up getting involved in social projects that benefit local communities -- and that's what can differentiate them from the run-of-the-mill tourist who only stays two weeks and leaves.

Is this really a vacation?

So yes, there's a bit of fun thrown in, but is the word "vacation" accurate when you're still working through? That's why some are leery of using the term "co-working vacation", as they believe there's a danger of perpetuating misconceptions about the co-working lifestyle. For some, working remotely around the world is a way of life, not a vacation package, as Aline Maynard explains on Medium:

The problem here is that it might drive some people (who’ve never attended such coworking places, or work remotely) to think that people working in postcard locations are workaholics and that well-balanced people shouldn’t follow their lead. [..] When in fact, the opposite is happening, people feel more relaxed, and hence take better decisions, work better, and feel better. Workers get to do more with their time as they face fewer distractions, mentioned New York Times’s Tanya Mohn in Co-Working on Vacation: A Desk in Paradise. They also get their dose of sun, and novelty, something we all need to get the inspiration going.

Maynard makes the apt analogy that co-working retreats are more like artists' residencies, which have been around for a long time, and are meant to get creatives out of their habitual milieu and jolt them with new inspiration.

In any case, whether we find the most fitting term for this trend is beside the point. What matters here is that there is a global shift underway. Increasing numbers of people are becoming disenchanted with the old 9 to 5 model, and are increasingly aware of other options. More people are viewing the wider world as a place to work, collaborate, create new communities, to learn and have fun, and it's this shift in mindset that allows them to redefine, for themselves, what it means to live a fuller life, beyond what is believed as 'successful' or 'productive' in the narrow, conventional sense. For a list of co-working retreats, see here.