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‘Workations’ blur line between jobs and time off

Ryan Johnson for the Boston Globe

Last summer, Mark Valentine spent the first few mornings of his Cape Cod vacation hunched over his computer, sitting in a plastic chair, with his work spread out on a boogie board in the laundry room.

Valentine, who runs an agency in New York that creates promotional materials for TV shows, was up against an extended deadline for an Amazon project and didn’t want to ruin his family’s vacation by working in the middle of the house. Finally, his back aching, Valentine found a co-working space in Hyannis, where he sometimes stayed until 2 or 3 in the morning.

With smartphones getting smarter and Wi-Fi almost everywhere, the line between work and the rest of our lives is becoming increasingly blurred — and the ability to stay connected to co-workers 24/7 is invading vacation time in a big way.


More than a quarter of workers say they are expected to stay on top of work issues when they are away and jump in if necessary, according to a recent national survey by the online jobs site Glassdoor. A similar share said they had been contacted by a co-worker or boss while they were on vacation.

And as expectations for constant connectivity rise, some resorts are making it easier for their guests to build work into their time away. The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage, Calif., just started offering a poolside cabana with a workstation, office supplies, and a waterproof safe. Co-working spaces are popping up in destinations such as Cape Cod — there’s CapeSpace in Hyannis — and Lake Tahoe, where a business center just opened in a mountaintop lodge at the Heavenly ski resort. A number of “workation” retreats have been established in exotic locations, for people who want to spend a few weeks in, say, a safari park in South Africa, but still have access to an office with high-speed Internet service.


Even without access to such amenities, people are finding ways to work on vacation. They scout out coffee shops and libraries before they book a trip, travel with portable scanners and printers, and sneak out of bed at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails. They work in campers, on sailboats, and in vineyards. Some set aside as much as six hours a day to work, even building in time between activities to check e-mails.

One MIT professor rented a two-story roomin Australia so he could work in the middle of the night during US business hours without disturbing his wife. While traveling in Spain, the owner of a Boston marketing and public relations firm took a middle-of-the-night Skype call in a friend’s living room to close a business deal.

Americans take fewer vacation days than they used to, according to Project: Time Off, an initiative of the US Travel Association. From 1978 to 2000, Americans averaged 20.3 days off a year; by 2014, it had bottomed out at 16. Vacation time has risen slightly since then, but the amount of work being done has increased along with it.

“I don’t think we’re going to see the lines become unblurred,” said a Project: Time Off researcher, Katie Denis.

Kristen Lucas, a landscape architect in West Lafayette, Ind., grew up in the Berkshires and returns every summer with her 6-year-old daughter for a month, to visit her family. Like 41 percent of workers across the country, Lucas doesn’t get paid vacation time, so she sets up shop at a new co-working space in North Adams. She takes a few days off at the beginning and end of the trip, and is hoping to work four-day weeks this summer.


Taking uninterrupted blocks of time off would be tough even if she had paid vacation time, Lucas said, and in the end, working in the Berkshires for a few weeks feels almost like a real getaway.

“It’s just such a huge change in state of mind,” she said.

Many blame millennials for the rise of the working vacation — and indeed, they are the group most likely to do so, according to multiple surveys. Sixty-two percent of 18- to 34-year-olds check in during time off, versus 48 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds, according to a recent survey by the staffing firm Accountemps. But entrepreneurs and small-business owners also find it nearly impossible to unplug, and a growing number of independent contractors are scrambling to earn money whenever, wherever.

“We can see it as this lovely freedom, but we need to think about what’s behind the desire to work even during a planned vacation,” said Erin Kelly, a professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Often, that’s anxiety about having to prove yourself to your employer. Or it’s anxiety about where my next gig and next chunk of income is going to come from.”


In France, where workers get an average of 30 days’ paid vacation a year and companies with more than 50 employees are legally obligated to establish hours when employees can’t send or respond to e-mails, this anxiety is less acute. At Daimler, the German carmaker, employees on holiday can activate a system that informs e-mail senders their messages will be automatically deleted while the employee is out.

But in the United States, truly getting away sometimes requires going to extremes.

A year ago, Chatham Bars Inn started offering a “digital detox package.” Guests’ devices are collected, and televisions in the inn’s rooms are disconnected; in exchange, they get a $200 resort credit, a gift certificate to a local bookstore, and complimentary bike rental.

John Liston, an investment banker turned manager of strategy and operations at All Set, a Boston home-services startup, travels internationally to get out of cellphone and Wi-Fi range. He also puts off booking trips until he knows a project is wrapping up, to avoid being sucked into work.

A few years ago, Liston and his girlfriend went to Costa Rica with just three weeks’ notice, and the Wi-Fi was so spotty he was able to check in only once a day.

For Liston, 27, that counts as being off the grid.

“For me,” he said, “unplugging is staying aware of emergencies but not actually producing work.”

Jehan Hamedi doesn’t even bother trying to avoid work when he’s on vacation. Hamedi, founder of the Boston artificial intelligence-driven marketing startup Adhark, takes advantage of every spare moment, reviewing product designs while in line at Starbucks and jumping on conference calls as he walks, brushes his teeth (on mute), or flips burgers in his parents’ backyard in Wisconsin.


Hamedi, 27, carries a portable phone charger wherever he goes and scopes out spots where he can duck away to take a call — especially if an investor’s on the line.

“You kind of go into Jason Bourne mode,” he said. “You walk in and you find the exits. You look at the bottlenecks; you look at your phone and see how much charge you’ve got.”

Hamedi’s girlfriend, Anne Yoder, is understanding of his need to build the company, though she has requested some work-free time during their trips to New Jersey and St. Louis this summer.

“The idea of a vacation” — she laughs — “it’s Anne and it’s Jehan and then it’s his phone.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.