This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
Mikaela Miller had never pictured herself stuck in an office, but, perhaps as with many people, it happened anyway. In her 20s she chose a career in biomedical-data analysis—a deskbound job certainly, but one she hoped she could perform from anywhere. Instead, after grad school she found herself commuting to a cubicle in Kansas City, hoarding her vacation time to take an annual two-week international trip. “I had to save all year to do that,” she told me. “I’d work Christmas Eve, or the day after Thanksgiving.” Into her 30s, her life got more sedentary, more routine.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Miller’s employer began allowing remote work. This spring she booked a one-month trip to Buenos Aires in an attempt to realize the peripatetic lifestyle she’d once envisioned. In Argentina, she generally clocked in at the same time she had in Missouri. But she also used the two-hour time difference to take Spanish lessons before her workday; in the evenings, she’d tour the city or learn to tango. (Dinner and other social activities typically don’t start until 9 p.m. in Argentina, which was compatible with Miller’s later sign-off times.) The prospect of new experiences motivated her to pack her schedule.
Miller is part of a wave of remote workers who have blended work and play in the past two years in a trend dubbed the workcation. Doing one’s job from far-flung locales has long been the aspiration of freelancers and so-called digital nomads. But the wider adoption of remote work during the pandemic has now made this possible for a broader swath (albeit still a privileged minority) of desk jockeys. The travel industry is predictably bullish on the trend: A recent report by Deloitte says that “laptop-lugging leisure travelers” jet-setted twice as often during the end of last year as traditional vacationers. But when we mash up on-the-clock time with relaxation—spheres that many Americans have held separate—are we turning work into a vacation or a vacation into work?
At first glance, I suspected that the answer was the latter. Experts told me that we recover from work via six mechanisms. Detachment happens when we mentally disengage from work. Relaxation involves doing activities that demand very little effort. Autonomy has us dictate our own schedules. Mastery refers to experiences that build a sense of competence outside our job. Meaning is a sense of a purpose. And affiliation refers to connection with others. A good vacation—and life—should offer all six elements, represented by the acronym DRAMMA. But if you bring a work laptop on a trip, you almost certainly nullify detachment. You probably compromise relaxation and autonomy too, because you still have to perform your job, and likely on your company’s schedule. The inability to mentally disengage is why some studies say that working on a traditional vacation, unsurprisingly, reduces its health and well-being benefits.
Yet when I spoke with pandemic-era workcationers, many told me they felt rejuvenated, even if—counterintuitively—their trips weren’t especially relaxing. Something had happened to them because they were working 40-hour weeks while exploring a new place, not in spite of it. To be clear, these trips are not a substitute for real, productivity-free time off—something Americans don’t take enough of—and their aim is not to facilitate a temporary escape from life. Instead, for those lucky enough to afford and take workcations, the trips can be an exercise in changing one’s humdrum routines by dropping them into a new environment. Think of them as a practice run for the life you want back home.
On the most basic level, we enjoy travel because we value novelty. Studies show that new experiences boost creativity, motivation, and learning. They are a basic prophylactic against boredom—something many of us have felt in the past two years. But the difference between novelty on a vacation versus a workcation is that the latter situation forces you to integrate work habits with these unique experiences.
Last spring, 24-year-old Murphy Studebaker rented an Airbnb in the outdoor-adventure hub of Page, Arizona, with three other Los Angeles–based software engineers. During their three-week stay, the friends typically left work at 4 p.m. on the days when they didn’t have late-afternoon meetings, to go hiking or kayaking through the area’s red-rock canyons. Studebaker found herself getting the same amount of work done in less time. “Back in L.A., I’ll take the full 9-to-5 and work less intensely because it doesn’t matter if I’m done early,” she told me. Novelty was a propellant, a reason to reach the end of each day faster. The group also took regular midday walks along a nearby trail that overlooked “crystal blue” water. Work commitments sometimes affected their breaks—one friend was often on call, so some hikes began with the understanding that the group might have to turn back at any moment. But mostly, having companions nearby for any excursion multiplied the enjoyment.
Contrary to what I’d initially thought, workcations can offer periods of detachment and relaxation; they’re just shorter than on traditional vacations. The experts I spoke with agreed that brief, regular recoveries are more important for burnout prevention than longer, sporadic breaks. Research shows that the well-being effects of a vacation fade soon after you return to work, so we need recurring ways to top up our depleting energy reserves. And in our always-on work culture, taking a prolonged vacation can be a source of anxiety in itself. “The nature of work is overloaded,” Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and an expert on organizational flexibility, told me. The fire hose of emails and requests isn’t going to relent, so our coping strategy must include “micro-breaks.” Workcations are one way to facilitate more of them. Jessica de Bloom, a business professor at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, told me, “You still need holidays, but it’s important to think of everyday recovery, from the five-minute breaks every hour to evenings and weekends.” Balance is something we need daily, not annually.
Although the workcationers I spoke with all had support from their managers, some companies are reluctant to sanction the practice. These trips might cause tension with employers who fear a loss of productivity, or don’t wish to encourage more remote work at a time when they’re dusting off their return-to-office plans. However, the Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury told me that those employers must grapple with a fundamental norm shift: Prospective recruits for white-collar jobs are demanding remote flexibility. Choudhury, who studies the future of work, told me that a company that doesn’t offer it might be perceived as “old-school” and fail to attract top employees. Whether or not the workcation is a lasting trend, the erosion of the office-centric culture that allowed it might be here to stay.
For the employee, too, a blending of work and play can create potential stressors. Shea Andersen, a 49-year-old PR and marketing consultant, and his wife, Michelle, sold their home in Boise, Idaho, in late 2020. They spent most of last year traveling with their two preteen daughters, who were learning remotely. Shea recalled running up a cacti-covered hill in Sedona, Arizona, only to get spotty service for a video call and quills stuck in his ankle. Other times, he has relished the collision of his job and travels: While working on a beach in Puerto Rico, he used a five-minute break between calls to bodysurf.
Remarkably, prior to the pandemic, Shea was a self-proclaimed “office guy,” who would tense up at the idea of a working vacation whenever Michelle—a longtime remote worker—suggested it. I laughed when Shea told me this, because I have the same reaction every time my boyfriend, Dan, also a freelance journalist, wonders aloud whether we can work somewhere new for a month. The difference between how we think is what experts identify as a preference for segmentation or integration in work life. Segmenters typically prefer to set physical and temporal boundaries around their jobs; integrators are more comfortable blurring them.
Segmenters tend to report better work-life balance. In a 2020 study of 155 employees who transitioned to working from home during the pandemic, researchers found that those who, say, had a dedicated workspace or used apps to alert them when it was time to close the laptop were better able to fulfill both their work and nonwork roles (such as family duties). I felt validated upon learning this, because I’d always believed that my habits were healthy. Living outside Denver, I regularly carve out time to bike, ski, and camp, and I rarely work nights, weekends, or vacations. Setting hard boundaries always seemed like the best way to maintain that vital element of detachment.
But I’ve realized that for all the boundaries I might set, work is still the priority in my life. Because I’m reluctant to bring work on vacation, I don’t travel far when I’m busy; these days, I’m always busy, so I don’t travel very far. Even before the pandemic, I hadn’t left the U.S. in years, and as my geographic range has shrunk, my life feels like it has too.
The problem I ultimately face might be the same as many Americans’: work and life have never been truly separate. The place we call home, the people we surround ourselves with, how we spend our leisure time, and how much of it we get to take—all these things orbit around the immovable core of our profession. That’s the equation that workcations try to reverse; they encourage workers to prioritize life. Your job becomes what you do when you’re not hiking, or dancing, or learning a new language. From that basic reorientation stems more novelty, micro-breaks, and intentional boundaries. And maybe, after practicing a different way of living on one’s travels, the real triumph of a working vacation would be to bring those lessons home.