'Workcations' embraced by Canadians, companies looking to improve work life balance

staycation

When the winter doldrums set in earlier this year, Scott Taber headed for warmer climates but he didn't leave work behind.

The public relations worker spent two weeks working in the Florida sun – taking advantage of an initiative by his employer, Toronto firm Media Profile, that allows staff to spend a short period of time working from anywhere in the world.

The arrangement, often called a "workcation," isn't wholly new to corporate Canada but it has seen renewed interest from both employees and employers since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Now companies that seldom saw staff take them up on the opportunity to head abroad or across Canada for a few weeks or months are seeing workers jonesing to participate, while other businesses are offering programs for the first time.

A December study of 1,000 people from vacation booking company Kayak estimates 27 per cent of employed Canadians and 38 per cent workers in Gen Z – aged 18 to 24 – will take a workcation this year.

Media Profile gives staff who have been with the company at least six months between two and four weeks to work remotely and up to $3,000 for travel or accommodation costs.

The program is meant to help staff maintain a healthy work-life balance and offer them some flexibility. As soon as it was announced in November 2021, workers were hooked.

"Immediately the chat blew up. People were so excited," Taber recalled.

Taber, along with his wife and daughter, chose Florida's Siesta Key because they wanted to escape the heaviness of living through two years of a pandemic.

"It was nice to go somewhere where the sun was shining and you could go out for a walk, you could get a coffee and not have to bundle up," he said.

Taber has a colleague that ventured to San Diego. Another will head to Nicaragua.

Workcations are also underway at Thomson Reuters Corp., where staff can work from anywhere in Canada for up to eight weeks.

Some are using the program to care for elderly or ill loved ones they don't live with, while others are visiting family they seldom see or heading to a more scenic workspace, said Mary Alice Vuicic, the media conglomerate's chief people officer.

Her plan is to push the program even further to allow staff to venture outside of Canada, but first Thomson Reuters must figure out foreign tax obligations and how to track time spent working overseas.

Vuicic hopes the program will give workers the flexibility they desire, but also sees it as good way to attract talent in a market that has pushed many to rethink their careers and realize a paycheque is no longer enough to keep them in gruelling jobs.

Workers are now looking for unique perks that respect their work-life balance. In response, many companies are offering wellness, daycare and elder care stipends, flexible schedules and extra vacation time.

"The companies that don't deliver the experience that people want won't be able to attract and retain the talent," said Vuicic. "The talent is in the driver's seat today."

Talent is part of why Kitchener, Ont.-based energy technology company EnPowered allows workcations lasting up to three months.

Employees have shown up to meetings from the balcony of a Costa Rica vacation home and another attending a wedding in India got to extend their stay to catch up with family.

"When I started in human resources, somebody who wanted to go home for a wedding had to save up vacation for a whole year to go for three or four weeks ... so it's nice that she didn't have to do that," said Deidre Falkiner, people and culture director at EnPowered.

But there are some difficulties. The woman in India, for example, was in a completely different time zone and felt disconnected from colleagues. She eventually switched her hours to be able to join team meetings.

Others have raised questions around what privacy and security laws they may be subject to elsewhere and what health care coverage they receive abroad, so the company studies local laws and software before anyone travels and limits workcation time to three months to minimize instances where people can't receive coverage for illnesses or accidents.

As new issues are raised, the company adapts.

"Unless you keep that conversation going, you're never going to identify the best way to do things," said Falkiner.

"We will keep learning."