For three weeks in January, my friend and I rented a 150-year-old shotgun house in New Orleans. Our place was in the Lower Garden District, barely a mile from the French Quarter. And yet it took us four days to reach the city’s historic center. The reason for the delay: We were workcationing. Vocation before vacation.
Not so long ago, working from a faraway destination seemed like a fantasy populated by mythical creatures known as digital nomads. The rest of us ID badge-wearing worker bees never imagined we could leave the hive. But the pandemic upended the status quo. Now people from traditional, office-anchored fields are packing up their printers and swimsuits and temporarily relocating to destinations previously slated for holiday travel.
“The trend is increasing, and the number of locations trying to attract remote workers is going up,” said Prithwiraj “Raj” Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who studies remote work. “I truly believe this is the future of work.”
Before the pandemic, working from home (WFH) had been gaining traction. Nearly a year ago, the arrangement became mainstream and, for millions of us, mandatory. At the same time, the idea of working from anywhere (WFA) started to emerge as a viable option. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, of all places, was an early adopter. In 2012, the Alexandria, Virginia-based agency allowed its employees to work and live in any location of their choosing.
Many of the older examiners fled to warmer climes such as Florida. Choudhury, who co-wrote a paper on this experiment, discovered that productivity increased by 4.4%. The beach, apparently, is not as distracting as the office Keurig machine.
“Workcation suggests that you’re not working,” he said, “but you can be sitting in Bali and working harder” than you did on the mother ship.
Switching up your environment can have myriad mental health benefits. Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist, said a new setting can refresh focus, improve productivity and boost creativity. It can also sharpen the line between work and play, which has grown smudgier.
“The change in scenery works because people adopt a different mindset for a time,” she said. “While the scene is still fresh to their senses, they are more likely to take breaks from work, walk outside, enjoy the new scenery and unplug at the end of the workday.”
When choosing a WFA destination, first consider travel bans, safety measures or visa requirements for countries accepting U.S. travelers. Nations such as Barbados, Estonia and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have created special visas for digital nomads and freelancers.
Don’t discount domestic locations, which after so many months at home can feel surprisingly exotic. “It’s not always about going halfway around the world,” said Brit Healey, founder of travel agency Global Nomad who has been working remotely on Florida’s Space Coast. “It’s about being flexible and thinking outside the box, especially when it comes to COVID travel restrictions.”
Jay Ternavan, who runs Workation.com, a travel agency for remote workers, said to weigh factors such as weather, culture, cuisine, activities and budget – the same starting points for trips.
You also need to consider the time difference and how it will affect your work schedule and sleep. When Ternavan and I spoke, it was afternoon for me (New Orleans) and after midnight for him (El Gouna, Egypt). I apologized for keeping him up so late.
“With the time difference, your workday might not start till 2 p.m.,” said Ternavan, who has workcationed in about 90 countries, “so you can take a tour in the morning and work in the afternoon.”
When booking accommodations, make sure the property has a proper setup with reliable WiFi, strong cellphone service and a chair that won’t kill your back. (SnapStays, a new offshoot of the company Digital Outposts, specializes in furnished rentals with all of the office supply fixings.) If you don’t have a printer or mailroom, check the neighborhood beforehand for stores offering printing and postal services. “You have to assume the risks: The internet connection is no good. The power is no good. There’s a long blackout,” said Joseph Fuller, a professor who heads Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work program. “Other people are depending on you.”
When my workcation mate, Ali, and I first started batting around the idea, we had a few prerequisites in place. The destination had to be warm and within driving distance. The rental house could not have any shared spaces with outsiders. And the city could neither be under lockdown nor ignoring the global health crisis.
We checked listings – and case rates – in New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The Crescent City felt right. We could follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols and still partake in hallowed New Orleans traditions such as cheering on the Saints (at an outdoor brewery), celebrating Mardi Gras (with house floats, the alternative to krewe parades), eating po’ boys (curbside pickup) and walking around the French Quarter with to-go cocktails, a practice that makes even more sense during a pandemic.
On a bright and chilly Saturday morning, we packed up our rental Nissan Murano, moving bags around like an interior designer staging a new home. I wrapped Ali’s monitor in my blanket, and she slid her printer in the gap between the driver’s seat and our dog Mac’s perch. We made sure our snacks, chargers and masks were within easy reach.
We drove over the weekend so that we didn’t have to take vacation time. Our plan was to overnight in Knoxville, Tenn., the halfway point, and arrive in New Orleans the following evening. The road trip was seamless until we crossed over the Mississippi state line into Louisiana. The Nissan shuddered, then stopped in the middle of an exit ramp. A tow-truck driver drove us the remaining 40 miles.
With our first workday in New Orleans looming, we didn’t have much time to decompress after the long drive. In between calls to the rental company, Ali, a lawyer, set up her workstation in a bedroom that was sandwiched between my sleeping quarters and bathroom. I claimed the long glass table that faced Magazine Street and an orange tree heavy with fruit. Whenever I shifted in my chair, the ropes of Mardi Gras beads would shimmy. On warm days, I sat in the backyard, a jungle of tropical plants. After staring at a white wall for so many months, I felt as if I had stepped into a Technicolor world.
One of my biggest concerns was balancing work and vacation and not tipping the portmanteau scale too far in one direction. I sought help from experts. Fuller assured me I could be productive and enjoy mini-escapes as long as I managed my time and workload efficiently. “You are kind of indulging in making this trip, so you need to get things done,” he said. “So much of your motivation will be a desire to excel and an anxiety to fail.”
Healey shared the rallying cry of a life coach: “If you work hard, you can play hard.” And Ternavan reminded me I was not shackled to my desk; I could create pop-up offices around the city. Heeding his advice, I turned a courtyard at the New Orleans Jazz Museum into a Zoom meeting room and a secluded patch of grass at City Park into a cubicle. Under a giant oak tree, I conducted a phone interview without interruption from my office mates – shrieking kids and nasal-y geese.
Though we couldn’t always heap attention on our host city, Ali and I tried to schedule at least one activity a day. The outings varied in ambition. On days with tight deadlines, we would suit up Mac and walk up Magazine Street to the Garden District, gazing at the grand dame homes and peeking into vintage clothing stores.
One morning, we drove to King Cake Hub and returned with enough cakes and plastic babies to feed a krewe and open a day care center. On a slow afternoon, we high-tailed it to Studio Be gallery and a Mardi Gras costume shop, both in the Bywater neighborhood. Afterward, we zipped home, sent a few emails and made some calls, then ventured out again for a house float tour.
When Ali was subsumed with work, I planned short breaks. I visited the ARTmazing Selfie Gallery, where the woman behind the counter asked if I was alone. I told her my friend was stuck at work. With empathy bordering on pity, she handed me a selfie stick. I signed up to volunteer at Couturie Forest in City Park.
Whenever I had a free hour or two, I would drive to the woods, hike in a few feet and pull down invasive vines as if I were lowering the sails on a flotilla of ghost ships. I toiled alone, but occasionally someone – or something – would enter my work zone: a Cooper’s hawk, a birdwatcher excited to show me a wood duck (I heard “woodchuck,” but recovered nicely), a dog owner trying to decipher my actions. I explained that I was helping the trees breathe a little better. “Thank you for caring about our park,” he said.
In a few instances, I returned with Ali, not wanting her to miss out on the experience. I was a repeat visitor at JAMNOLA, a new attraction that salutes New Orleans culture, and a serial customer at Killer PoBoys.
On the second day of our workcation, Ali brought up the idea of extending our stay. Later that week, she admitted that she didn’t feel as if she was on vacation. “I’m not relaxed,” she said, sounding distressed. I reminded her that we were only part-time vacationers. The next day, we booked a third week. I fell into the rhythms of the binary arrangement. We joked about adding a fourth week, but if the right rental house had appeared, we would’ve acted with dead seriousness.
On our last day, I couldn’t concentrate on work. I wanted to spend as much time with my friend – New Orleans – before we parted ways. I yanked vines and returned my tools at the volunteer center. I took a crazy-eight route to see more house floats. I dropped by Berta’s and Mina’s Antiquities Gallery in Uptown and bought a piece of folk art. Before circling back home, I picked up po’ boys for dinner.
I collected Ali and Mac and drove our happy trio to a porch concert by Will Dickerson, Ana de Ferreira and Will’s dad. Dickerson announced that he was going to perform on Fat Tuesday. Ali and I looked at each other with the same woeful expression. “I’ll check the listings one more time,” she said. After a few minutes, she put her phone away. From her silence, I knew what she was going to say.
After the show, we headed over to Second Line Brewing and grabbed a table in the beer garden. Ali bought a six-pack, and I ordered an IPA called Vacation Juice. I took my final sips of Vacation and unwrapped my po’ boy.