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the future of work

Tony Vlismas in Greece, his occasional ‘office.’ He has continued working while vacationing in Greece on a couple of occasions. ‘There’s nothing that says I can’t have fun while I’m working.’Tony Vlismas

Tony Vlismas can't remember the last time he went away and didn't do work. When Mr. Vlismas spent seven weeks in Greece a few years ago – while on salary as senior director of marketing for Voltari, a New York-based advertising company – he designed the company's new logo as he sat in a beautiful café next to the ocean. He went back to Greece for another month last year, a trip, he maintains, that didn't faze his employer in the least.

"There's nothing that says I can't have fun while I'm working," says the 36-year-old, who's now senior director of marketing at Polar Mobile, a Toronto-based developer of smartphone applications. "None of my bosses ever cared where I got the job done, so long as I got it done and they always knew that I would. My career is more like an extension of my life."

Canadians are increasingly working while on vacation, according to a recent study by Regus PLC, a global provider of flexible workplaces. The study found that 53 per cent of the Canadian professionals who responded would work one to three hours a day while on holiday. While entrepreneurs and freelancers have been taking so-called "workations" for years, now more Canadian nine-to-fivers are using the increased flexibility that technology offers to travel while continuing to work at their full-time jobs from the road. Workations allow people to travel the world without sacrificing their careers, explains Wes Lenci, a vice-president at Regus Canada, who cites significant benefits such as boosted creativity from the exposure to different cultures as well as stress reduction for employees.

But while Mr. Vlismas confirms technology is "absolutely important" to a workation, he found he wasn't as reliant on technology as he expected. When in Toronto, where he also keeps a flexible schedule, he's constantly available on his devices, but when he travels to places such as that remote Greek island, he's in a different time zone and has limited Wi-Fi and spotty cellphone coverage. He simply makes do by setting up his calls in advance or letting people know the best times to reach him.

"People knew I'd be online in the same café working for an hour and a half every day," says Mr. Vlismas, who packs his iPad, computer and iPhone. "I was able to work offline and just connect when I had to."

When John Wood, 46, went on a mission rebuilding schools in Haiti last April, he also faced limited accessibility to communications, but continued to stay in touch with clients and work at his commission-based job as a technology recruitment consultant for Lock Search Group, a Toronto-based recruiting company. He gets around expensive roaming charges on his workations by purchasing a local smartphone and minutes so that area and international calls are much less expensive. He structures his day by getting work out of the way early so he feels free and then follows up when he has some down time in the evening to set up his calls for the next day.

"You can become kind of obsessed with needing to stay completely tethered to back home and into a mindset that everything that's coming down the wire is urgent," Mr. Wood says. "If you get into that mindset, then you're really defeating the purpose of going away and enjoying wherever you are."

While workations seem to be working out successfully for Mr. Vlismas and Mr. Wood, there can be a personal downside.

"Sometimes I forget to turn off," Mr. Vlismas admits. "I might be at dinner and not be paying attention or may forget that there's great stuff going on around me. I almost blur the line so that I forget the other side, which is the non-work side."

That's exactly what worries Julie McCarthy, associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto. While it may work for some individuals, she doesn't see it as a healthy trend for employees and their families, or for the organization. It's one thing to say you're going on vacation and give your contact information in case an emergency arises, she explains. It's another to say you're going on vacation and taking four projects to finish while away. It's very concerning, she adds, because the boundaries are disappearing and there are more problems in terms of workers' health (including rising levels of anxiety, stress and burnout), which ultimately impact the bottom line for companies.

"If we work on vacation, we make it very difficult, if not impossible, to fully recover lost resources and energy," Ms. McCarthy says. "You may be in the Brazilian rain forest on this phenomenal tour, but if you just finished completing a project in the morning, it's going to be harder for you to detach yourself. While you're hiking with your family, your mind is more likely flipping back to the project that you have to get back to tomorrow morning."

She's also concerned about the difference between salaried employees working for a company, who must answer to managers and leaders, versus entrepreneurs who are their own boss and can set their own boundaries.

"Some people feel they're never off the grid," Ms. McCarthy says. "Because of competitiveness over jobs and the demands of the workplace, they may never be getting the proper resource recovery that they need, and more and more, we're seeing that these people burn out. I hope that companies won't start to demand or create a culture whereby work is completed on vacation."

However, Mr. Wood would argue that, for the most part, much of the pressure to be available 24/7 is self-imposed. He believes that individuals need to figure out what's urgent and must be tended to immediately, and what's not so urgent that can be addressed at a time that's more convenient. That's his secret to a successful workation.

"It's important not to continually put yourself in a position where you feel obliged every minute of every hour to have to return a text, e-mail or a call," Mr. Wood says. "You need to be able to structure your day in relation to what's important and do that in the context of your clients."

Mr. Wood thinks we'll see a lot more workations for people who don't absolutely have to be in the office to execute their responsibilities. If individuals want to create more flexibility for themselves, he suggests creating a business case by mapping out a plan for a week and then presenting it to the manager or boss.

While Mr. Vlismas feels this is where work is headed in the future, he notes it's easier to have this type of flexibility if you're working for a small to medium-sized company.

"It all depends on the industry, but if they want you to stay in the office, then they better make it a really cool office."

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