The Next Phase of Business Travel is Workations

6 min read • Jun 25, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

Business travel used to be the backbone of the travel industry. Business travelers in 2018 spent a collective $1.4 trillion—a fifth of all travel expenses that year. 

But COVID-19 grounded most business travel for months, and with many international borders remaining closed, the road to recovery will take some time. “Travel for sales and client-related meetings is most likely to be among the first to return as domestic travel resumes and more travel is permitted,” writes Andrew Curley for McKinsey. “The timeline for travel for internal in-person meetings to resume is longer, with higher levels of scrutiny on what is considered business-critical and can’t be accommodated with technology.”

Chart of travel statistics

Source: For Corporate Travel, a Long Recovery Ahead,” McKinsey & Company. 

Business travel may not look the same right away, especially when it comes to recovering sales for small businesses. But if you’ve been able to free yourself of expensive leases or co-working space rentals, you may have another option to bring your team together.

Enter: The workation.

Combining the terms “work” and “vacation” may seem impossible, but it refers to trips designed to blend the two, perhaps for longer periods of remote work in a scenic location—or for digital nomads enticed by remote-friendly visas for countries like Bermuda, Barbados, or Estonia.

The Next Phase of Business Travel

Elaborate corporate retreats are nothing new. But if you have a distributed team—or one that hasn’t been able to meet in person for more than a year, like many teams have—consider kickstarting in-person relationships again with a retreat before instituting your back-to-office plan.

“Those who are off-site by default are always going to want human connection at some point,” Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, told Skift. “So what ends up happening is travel becomes a core part of culture building. Business travel should get a lot more dynamic. You’re going to have teams of 10, 15, or 20 people who suddenly need an off-site every quarter or so to build strategy, to bond, or build relationships.”

Even if you’re planning to return to the office, remote work isn’t going away. 57% of Americans now work remotely in some capacity, according to a Gallup poll. According to another survey, 99% of currently-remote American workers now want the option to work from home for the rest of their careers. 

In response, more companies are planning larger retreats than ever before, booking up entire hotels in an effort to build culture and replace office life. “As corporations embrace remote work, they’re going to be expanding their use of company retreats and off-sites in a [new way],” hotelier Steve Sanchez told Skift. There’s going to be a convergence between the office and hospitality. The office is becoming more like a hotel, with amenity spaces. And hotels are becoming a little more like offices.”

A Culture-Building Work Perk

For remote teams, taking a week or two to travel together can supercharge culture-building and also fight isolation fatigue. Loneliness remains one of the biggest challenges of remote work, so much so that it’s been labeled as a secondary epidemic in the United States.

Graph about remote work struggles

Source: “The 2021 State of Remote Work,” Buffer.

That’s why remote-friendly companies like Zapier offer bi-annual retreats (Zapier calls them “unconferences”) in places like in California, Vancouver, and Utah, usually for 4 full days of work plus an additional free day. They also offer options to extend the trip into a vacation or workation. “We decide to invest money we save on office-related expenses into company and department retreats because of the invaluable team-building these experiences provide,” writes Zapier founder Wade Foster on their blog. “While we firmly believe that day-to-day work does not need to happen in person, we do believe that some things happen easier when in person. Because of that, we get the whole team together for a company retreat twice a year.”

This gathering can take many different forms. Some teams choose remote work retreats as a cornerstone of their benefits package. This option can take the form of so-called “hacker homes,” which attempt to recreate the energy from a WeWork or shared office space but have relocated from Silicon Valley to more tropical shores like Tulum, Mexico. Or it can represent a week or two meant to break up the monotony of working from home.  Health tech startup Olive leases getaway homes for employees to encourage them to take breaks, for example.

Companies like Outsite, which hosts groups of remote workers around the globe, now attract a wider range of people joining their programs. “Before the pandemic, we were fitting a niche of people…nomads, freelancers, tech workers. Because they can work remotely, they choose to live a different lifestyle,” Emmanuel Guisset, founder and CEO of Outsite, told CNBC. “Traveling now is much more difficult, so people want to stay longer to make it worthwhile.”

For remote-first teams like Buffer, offering workations is a way to beat burnout and provide employees with something different and exciting to motivate them. “Team retreats are most effective when combined with another option such as remote work or ‘workation’ options. [That way,] the team gets face-to-face time and it allows employers to address any issues that might go unresolved otherwise,” writes Buffer founder Rodolphe Dutel on the Outsite blog

Why You Should Plan a Workation for Your Team

American workers are notorious for leaving their vacation time on the table. Even before the pandemic, 55% of Americans didn’t use all of their vacation time in 2019, and 54% of workers said they felt guilty about taking time off at all.

Workations solve many of those fears, especially if your company has an unlimited vacation policy (which often leads to even less time taken from teams.) Companies like Outsite, OOO Club, Remote Year, and more offer digital nomad-style corporate retreats so teams can combine work and play more easily in far-flung destinations or those close to home.

Whether you’re heading back to the office, staying full-time remote, or choosing a hybrid option, consider planning a workation or retreat for your team to get together again in some way.

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.