Hostels

Indians say yes to “work from anywhere”

AHeading for the hills of Himachal or the pristine beaches of Goa? Does the lush greenery of Coorg appeal to you or are the royal retreats of Rajasthan more to your liking?

No, this is not a set of tourist brochures. It’s an exploration of the multitude of fairly remote locations with scenic surroundings where working professionals flock to these days. They are making the most of the Work From Anywhere (WFA) option their companies are giving them in the wake of the pandemic. And, for the beleaguered travel and hospitality industry, it’s proving to be a lifeline.

People combine a hectic working week with a weekend spent trekking or swimming (depending on where they are), or simply soaking up the beauty of their surroundings. Small hostels and homestays are sought after by people because they want to minimize interaction with others and stay safe in light of COVID. Also, it is expensive to stay in big hotels for a long time.

Make WFA Comfortable

Esha and Harsh Jain on a winter job in Shimla.

WFA requirements include a remote and not too commercial location (so customers can stay COVID-free and work in peace), good internet speed (above 50 Mbps), backup power, backup facilities, stable calls, affordable prices, simple meals with a warm touch, pleasantly decorated common workspaces, compatible co-residents and evening activities to de-stress. Special rates are offered for this category of customers depending on the length of stay. Many hostels organize quiz nights and other recreational events.

Esha and Harsh Jain, a Mumbai-based lawyer couple, had internships in Dharamshala, Leh and Shimla. “In Mumbai, we are locked in our apartment with limited socializing. WFA is therefore an excellent option. As private rooms were not available in hostels, we decided to stay in small homestays and family guesthouses with reasonably well equipped kitchens. We didn’t want to eat out every day. In Dharamshala, where we went for a workcation at the end of 2020, it was so liberating to walk around without a mask because there were no crowds,” says Esha.

Harsh says, “We had good 4G connectivity and that was all we needed to work wherever we went. There were occasional glitches, but we also faced this in Mumbai. In these scenic spots, the views were breathtaking, we breathed cleaner air, it was quiet, and there was a sense of calm. Under these circumstances, our productivity was higher. During the weekends we did interesting things like paragliding in Dharamshala and camping and hiking in Leh. We looked forward to the weekends.

A time for innovation

Weekend trek organized by Hosteller in Kasol.
Weekend trek organized by Hosteller in Kasol. Image source: BWT

Mumbai-based psychotherapist Dr Aman Bhonsle, who is an avid traveler, says, “Any profession is susceptible to becoming claustrophobic due to the value of repetition of certain tasks and protocols. WFA breaks up this monotony. It defies the standard routine. For people who love adventure and have an innate curiosity for new things, travel is a stimulating and inspiring experience. Also, travel brings problems, and humanity is a problem-solving species.

Workcations also offer a unique networking opportunity. “You meet interesting people outside of your usual circle, who you wouldn’t normally meet. On a physical level, trekking would give you cardiovascular exercises that you would never get in a gym. And, there is a spiritual side to this; you commune with nature. By being surrounded by nature and forming new relationships, you introspect yourself – find out who you are and what you want out of life. Of course, it takes discipline and commitment to combine work and vacation,” says Dr Bhonsle.

Dr. Rama Moondra, Dean of an academic institution in Ahmedabad and a leadership coach, says: “People take a work holiday to go to a remote location where they hope to focus better and manage the stress they face in urban centers. Since people haven’t traveled much in the last two years due to the pandemic, any opportunity to travel, even if it involves work, is something to look forward to. However, a workcation would only increase productivity if the working professional can draw the line between work and play.

silver linings

Dorjey Angchok and his wife Phunchok Dolma (center) outside their guesthouse in Leh
Dorjey Angchok and his wife Phunchok Dolma (center) outside their guesthouse in Leh.

The owner of a small guest house in Leh, Dorjey Angchok, laments that the pandemic has dealt a fatal blow to the region. “In Leh, 80% of the local population depends on tourism because there are no industries or a lot of infrastructure here. Foreigners have stopped coming, but the silver lining is that domestic tourism is higher due to the unique concept of WFA,” he says.

He has been running Zee Guest House for 20 years. From October to May, he has to keep his guest house closed because it is too cold for visitors. The guest house has 11 rooms with hot water. He and his wife Phunchok Dolma make sure their guests get simple food – dal, roti, sabzi and chawal. “Internet service providers have improved connectivity here. Working professionals generally stay with us from 15 days to a month. I had a guest who stayed for four months. Once we had six people from a tech company, a team, who stayed for a month. We charge Rs. 1,200 per night,” adds Angchok.

Book Well Technologies LLP (BWT) is an aggregator with 25-30 properties under its umbrella that are suitable for worker-cationers. It has partnered with properties across the country belonging to hostel chains such as Hostellers, Whoopers, Alt Life, Mustache, as well as small homestays and adventure campsites.

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BWT founder Adil Khan (left) with the startup's two co-founders
BWT founder Adil Khan (left) with the startup’s two co-founders.

Adil Khan, Founder of BWT, said: “The pandemic has been disastrous for the travel industry. But the good that came out of this adversity was innovation. The two that have worked for us are the online workcations and experiences we offer. We started out as a weekend touring platform, but the pandemic pushed us to expand our horizons.

“So far, we’ve hosted people working primarily in tech startups. But we also had guests from other sectors. Many properties also offer company-requested team-building experiences,” says Adil.

BWT has had over 200 people booking workcations through them over the past two years. Hostels and host families are full due to long stays. Vacationers typically stay 15-30 days at a hostel before moving on to another city and property for a more diverse WFA experience.

Hostels charge an average of 1,500 to 2,000 rupees per night for a private room and 400 rupees for a dormitory. Simple meals can be had for as little as Rs 150 per day, says Adil. The dorms are used by a mixed crowd – vacationers, freelancers, entrepreneurs, and travel enthusiasts. Since workcations are usually long stays, it is possible to make friends with like-minded people.

Working professionals can take advantage of the online experiences offered by BWT for an additional fee. These include yoga and meditation, in addition to niche classes on office makeup, charcoal art, cooking exotic desserts, knowing your beverages and beverages, to name a few- one. Also, of course, on weekends there are opportunities for bike or bike rental, trekking, paragliding and other adventure sports.

Shivani Chaurasia, who worked in operations at PeopleGrove, turned to WFH and believed it increased her productivity. And then she experimented with WFA. “I started exploring WFA and booked an internship through BWT. I was a bit skeptical if it would work. But the experience was smooth, actually great. The ownership, service and facilities were good. I could concentrate on work and enjoy the ambiance of nature,” she says.

Ashutosh Verma, an Accenture employee, who used BWT’s services, says, “We thought it would be difficult to travel and work during the uncertain COVID times, but my team and I really enjoyed it!

But there’s also a flip side to workcations that needs to be considered here, warns Dr. Moondra. “Some people may find it difficult to adjust to local food. Some remote locations may have internet connectivity issues. Additionally, common work areas can become noisy. Sometimes a boss may think you need to be available 24/7. A friend of mine cut his job short because of this. Workcations are good for freelancers. In the end, whether or not a workcation succeeds depends on the person, the job and the boss too!

WFA allows people to work in a pleasant environment, away from the noise and pollution of urban centers, as well as to spend their free time in an interesting way. This is why work assignments lead to improved mental well-being and generally increased productivity. Additionally, vacationers are providing much-needed income to hostels and small homestays hard hit by the pandemic and its fallout. So looks like a win-win situation for both sides.

(Editing by Yoshita Rao)