There is still a yet to be answered question of the remote working era: what happens to corporate culture when employees never meet face-to-face? As we enter year three of the pandemic, some workers have started new jobs and have never met a single co-worker IRL. This strange new reality prompted a recent New York Times article about the trend. Authors Kellen Browning and Erin Griffith wrote, “The phenomenon of job-hoppers who have not physically met their colleagues illustrates how emotional and personal attachments to jobs may be fraying. That has contributed to an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward workplaces and created uncertainty among employers over how to retain people they barely know.”
The specter of employees quitting because of these loose ties to a remote-only workplace is precisely what CEOs and senior executives dread and is one of the reasons that many think that permanent remote work isn’t feasible. Some companies are chomping at the bit to get back into the office, and a primary reason is the difficulty of maintaining corporate culture in a Zoom-only world. As the Omicron variant has spoiled return to office plans yet again, corporate retreats have sometimes become the only way employees have met in person. Companies have also used team-building retreats in the past, but over the past two years of the pandemic, the meetings in exotic locales have become more important.
And for employees who can work anywhere, there’s been a larger and increasing trend of ‘working vacations’ (or ‘workations’) that mix business and leisure. Working vacations and ‘bleisure’ trips were already catching on pre-pandemic, just like remote and hybrid work. But the pandemic made it the only option for many companies that found themselves without an office. During the first year of the pandemic, workers who were constantly hunkered down at home working long hours sought a change of scenery. The increase in short-term rentals is a testament to that. Whether they went with a spouse or group and friends, employees who could work from anywhere did just that, bringing laptops to Florida resorts or cabins in New York’s Finger Lakes.
Recent survey data from Airbnb reveals that people with remote work capabilities are actively booking more extended stays (two-week-plus trips). And for the execs worried about the erosion of workplace culture, corporate retreats have become an important business travel trip. Eric Hrubant, Owner and President of CIRE Travel, a concierge-style travel agency specializing in corporate and leisure travel planning, said companies saved a lot of money on travel in 2020, but they spent more in 2021 on ‘all-hands meetings’ that encouraged team bonding. “If everyone’s working remotely, a lot of companies still want to have that face-to-face interaction and they want to do it in a more relaxed atmosphere,” Hrubant said. “Lately, we’ve been planning more corporate ‘all-hands’ meetings in places like the Caribbean and Florida.”
The hard-hit hospitality and tourism industries have noticed the changes in corporate travel and responded accordingly. For example, Hyatt launched a ‘Work from Hyatt’ extended-stay package at 90 hotels across North America and the Caribbean. Tourists to Barbados can apply for a ‘Welcome Stamp’ visa to work remotely from the island for up to a year. This type of digital nomad traveling seemed limited to social media influencers until recently. But now that about 45 percent of Americans are working remotely full-time or at least part-time, according to a recent Gallup poll, working from literally anywhere is a genuine possibility for many. Nicole Nichols, a research director at a consultancy firm, told Bustle that she and her husband left Boston over the summer for a weeklong working vacation with another couple in the Berkshires. “It was essentially an elevated work from home experience,” Nichols said.
Hrubant said he’s noticed that companies have become much more relaxed in letting employees work from anywhere since the pandemic. “Most companies, especially small- to medium-sized companies are being super-flexible with their staff,” he said. “For example, my chief marketing employee asked if she could work from Mexico in February. So, she and her husband rented a little hacienda and they’re only taking off a few days, basically going to work from Mexico for a month. So, every night after work, they’re going to have a little margarita and sit in the pool.”
While companies wait with bated breath for a return to the office, taking advantage of these types of flexible working vacations comes with several benefits. Companies can send workers to luxury resorts to get away from the dirty laundry and pressures of home and get more focused work done. As long as employees are available for calls and keep up with deadlines, getting away to a new location can do wonders to recharge their batteries.
Forced vacation is especially important for workers in places like North America, where our workaholic lifestyles lead to burnout. Employees in Germany and Canada get an average of 29 days of PTO annually, and workers in the U.K. get an average of 28 days. In the U.S., we pale in comparison with a paltry average of 10 days of PTO every year. The U.S. has no federally mandated minimum of vacation days, leaving employers to set their own policies. And even when Americans get paid time off, we don’t take all of it. Only 53 percent of American workers emptied their PTO bank in 2017, according to a survey by Kimble, a software vendor focused on professional services automation. The main reasons people cited not taking vacation included feeling pressured by management to not take time off, feeling they couldn’t afford to travel, not wanting to fall behind on work, and feeling overwhelmed with deadlines.
Not everyone believes the idea of a working vacation is a good one, though. Remote work has already blurred the lines between work/life balance, leaving some to question if they work from home or live at work. The average length of time for employees working from home in the U.K., Austria, Canada, and the U.S. increased two hours a day since the pandemic began, according to data from business support company NordVPN, as many remote workers are signing off their computers at 8 at night. Naysayers of working vacations say it just extends the burnout trend even further.
After all, it’s either a vacation or not, and working vacation is a bit of an oxymoron. If you’re working at all, it’s not a vacation. “There’s obviously nothing wrong with working remotely in nicer digs, especially if you can afford it,” James Dennin writes in Mic. “But the fact that workers are so strapped for vacation time that the ‘workation’ might be an appealing compromise? That’s a sad and frankly disturbing sign of our times.” Add to the fact that many American workers, at least, already work or check email on vacation. About 62 percent of Americans admitted to checking email or work voicemail while on vacation, according to a 2017 survey by Travel Leaders Group.
Working vacations come with pros and cons and, in America, it’s probably further evidence of our addiction to work. But it’s not all a bad thing. For CEOs and executives, team-building activities at far-away resorts where employees can bring their families or a plus-one are excellent ways to solidify company culture while offices remain dormant or barely occupied. The idea of a working vacation may sound terrible to some, but it could be that as flexible and hybrid work has become the new norm, the balance between work and life will continue to blur. Employees certainly need time to unplug, but maybe the idea of blending work and personal life into a messier harmony isn’t so bad. Whenever we return to the office, it will likely be with a more fluid schedule where all hands won’t always be on deck. Companies that want to build better cultures during these times of change should probably embrace the idea that quirks like working vacations for remote employees who never meet co-workers in person might just be weird enough to work.