I drop down exhausted, sweaty and frustrated in the 2 p.m. sun, on a fallen tree trunk. In front of me, the ocean glimmers like millions of diamonds floating under the afternoon sun. But I hardly notice any of it. A group of monkeys is creating a ruckus nearby, and all I find myself worrying about is whether they will snatch my laptop and hop away the way they’d snatched my bag of chips when I was six.
For the past half hour, I was frustratingly looking for the internet on my phone to connect to an online office Christmas party. The electricity was out for most of the day, which means that the WiFi we had set up in our rented Goa home was spectacularly useless at the time. And much like 2020—where nothing quite worked—the house had low to no phone network, which converted this nearby tree trunk with intermittent 4G into my new WFH desk.
The sight might’ve looked ideal in a carefully curated Instagram shot. Working on my laptop far from my home in a crowded metropolis, squatting on a tree trunk facing the beach, trading office casuals for swimwear and a sarong, ready to head for a dip in the cool waters after editing a piece, and coming back to a Zoom meeting while I dry my hair. A “workcation” has always been a dream, after all. Keeping my bank balance in the white with a steady salary alongside short hikes between work, or running with the puppy on the beach once I sign out.
And with 2020 having finally made remote work a reality, my 45-day escapade to Goa seemed like finally something good was coming out of this horrid year.
Of course it’s not like I’m doing anything remotely new here. Remote work was once the mainstay of “digital nomads”. Now, the pandemic has made us all want to escape without having to rock the boat when it comes to our salaries. And to cater to this growing interest, everyone—from hotels tucked in jungles offering WFW (working from wilderness) plans to fancypants resorts offering eye-popping remote work packages to even state tourism boards offering WFH opportunities and conveniences—is luring white-collar workers away from their dining tables that have turned into backbreaking work desks.
All of this, without having to hide our vacation plans behind scammy “sick days” as remote work got normalised. “Data suggests that over 20 percent of all searches on Airbnb within the last three-month period in India, have been for long-term stays,” Amanpreet Bajaj, general manager of Airbnb India, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, told The Hindu in September. “In the past three months, 45 percent of searches by travellers have been for unique accommodations such as tree houses, farm stays, lodges and campsites.”
But since large swathes of most countries suffer from unreliable broadband connectivity and poor internet bandwidth—something that is affecting students the most this year, exposing the brutal digital divide worldwide—the white-collar worker’s wet dream of workcations can quickly unravel. Just like mine did. I can at least afford to buy a 4G dongle that lights up in certain spots, but those with tight budgets made tighter with pay cuts or job losses can’t really just get away and figure it out.
“I’ve tried remote working twice this year, one from the mountains and one from a beach. Both have been terrible,” Swapnil Prabhu, a copywriter with a Mumbai-based advertising agency, told me. “Even though my internet connection was sorted in one of those places, it’s tough to concentrate when you have breathtaking views around you. I was either sorting out my internet connection or, if that was done, feeling bad about not being outdoors with my girlfriend. I genuinely thought I’ll ace this remote working opportunity but a work-life balance is far tougher to maintain.”
This FOMO can suck. I found out the hard way. While my friends are out bodyboarding or drinking their (insert an impressive number here) beer, a friend who works in the revenue strategy department of a television network was stuck at our Goa home with me. We set ground rules in terms of where we can take work calls but because the network is not great outside, I often find myself gritting my teeth while my friend’s millionth phone call interrupts the writing of this piece. I wonder if this is because of my lack of planning but it turns out, workcations have sucked for many others like me too.
“I needed to temporarily leave home this year for the sake of my sanity, after spending eight months living with my parents who do not accept me being lesbian,” says 23-year-old Vishnupriya Gupta from Delhi. “I thought I’ll join my friends in Tosh (in Himachal Pradesh), and continue my work as a content writer and social media manager for a fashion house from there. But while my friends were out trekking, I was stuck in our homestay with work. That created so much FOMO in me that I’d be checking my phone for their updates every other minute. Also, the intermittent power cuts at our place meant I was always anxious of being cut off midway from important work calls.” This tech anxiety is often accompanied by longer work hours in a situation where there is no real divide between work and play.
“You would imagine a workcation, which merges work and life instead of segregating it, is ideal,” says Hvovi Bhagwagar, a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist. “Even before the pandemic, my friends, colleagues or clients would go on working holidays. But that used to be in a planned manner. They would take an extra laptop or WiFi device also because they thought this shouldn’t affect who they’re working for and their holiday shouldn’t have to become public knowledge.”
The pandemic, however, has changed the game, she says. Now that people are tired of being home, they’re taking off on workcations as I have. But our technology has not taken off in a manner that can support it. “The result [of tech gap] is that there are no boundaries between work and vacation,” says Bhagwagar. “One of the big fallouts of this year is also how much we’re all multi-tasking to cope with our changing environment. But this is also keeping our brains alert all the time. When you’re on vacation, you’re not doing it for a change of scenery as much as you’re doing it for your brain to be allowed to just rest. But with a workcation, there is so much sensory input in a day that your brain is just moving from one mode to another all the time, and doesn’t get the opportunity to rest.”
While some professions with remote work can manage workcations, those who work with teams that have to be connected on a daily basis might find it harder to constantly switch between work and downtime.
Bhagwagar believes in a four-day holiday, with no work at all, as more beneficial than the combo I’ve been experimenting with. And I can see the truth in her words. I am finishing this piece on a day that’s supposed to be my holiday but because of a frustrating jumble of tech fails and FOMO on my previous working day, here I am.
All is not lost though. If you have not experienced a workcation but are privileged enough to embark on it and are contemplating one, let this not be a downer. I thought my current plight is a result of my unstructured approach to work and life in general. But those like me can actually benefit from this new work arrangement.
“I personally have a very structured approach to work with diaries, lists and notes part of the process. But when I went through workcations in my 20s and 30s, I saw what a spectacular flop they can be for those like me,” says Bhagwagar. “But those who can flexibly shift between various roles, put work aside temporarily and do something fun and then jump back into it, can maybe balance workcations better.”
I’m just about to end this piece and jump into my afternoon quarantini sesh, but Bhagwagar leaves me with a parting piece of advice that might make me rethink trying a workcation ever again: “[A workcation] is capable of taking a toll on you. If you’re not able to compartmentalise and relax, even a ‘vacation’ at home for a couple of days might be better than a month-long workcation. It all comes down to tech access and how well you’re able to set your boundaries.”
That afternoon drink might just have to wait until I finish this story. Oh wait, that’s now.
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