Co-working retreats are the hot new workspace for ‘digital nomads’

fiji sunset

Simon_sees/Flickr

It seems like paradise, but what problems do they expose within our own working communities?

Epic phone bills. Working every weekend. Mundane side jobs to make ends meet. Social lives and relationships disrupted. Sleeping on friends’ sofas and in parents’ spare rooms. Make no mistake. Being an entrepreneur is tough.

Yet entrepreneurialism is often seen as the ultimate in work/life goals. Groundbreaking people unafraid to live life on their terms. Silicon Valley startups and their crazy perks are no longer the cutting-edge symbol of this lifestyle, however. Now, it’s the co-work vacation.

The concept is simple: The vast majority of entrepreneurs and startup businesses are online-based; therefore, they can work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection. Why not spend a few months working from, say, a beachfront in Bali? So, the logic goes, living costs will be so much lower that moving out there for a few months will not only allow you to focus on your goal undistracted, but you’ll actually save money you’d otherwise be spending on sky-high rent in San Francisco or Brooklyn.

That’s the key thinking behind a sweep of new businesses like Co-work Paradise in Bali, Coworking Camp in Tunisia, Hacker Paradise in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and Hubud, also in Bali. Each specializes in creating and curating remote co-working/living environments in foreign and often exotic locations.

Just another morning at our coworking spacr. Monkeys love to come and play in our garden. Regram @vittoch

A photo posted by HUBUD Coworking Space – Bali (@hubudbali) on

An increasing segment of the population in Westernized countries is self-employed, either running their own startups or simply operating as one-man freelancers for other businesses. (Hence the terms “digital nomads” or “solopreneurs.”) Yet once the freewheeling atmosphere wears off, some find the lack of office camaraderie or colleagues starts to grind. People claim to hate the rat race, but they hate being lonely, too, and that’s an often conveniently forgotten aspect of the self-employed working environment. Shared office spaces that rent by the desk, such as WeWork or CitizenSpace, are one such solution. Co-working retreats simply take the concept a step further—or rather, thousands of miles farther. 

None of these co-working retreats are suggesting a permanent move; instead, they advertise two-week to three-month “work-ations.” Individuals can go by themselves, in groups of friends, or as a company. In most instances there’s a screening process: You’ll have to fill out forms and complete a video interview to be one of the selected dozen-or-so to do a getaway with Hacker Paradise, for example. While a screening process may seem vaguely at odds with the egalitarian concept of entrepreneurialism, the businesses base this policy on the ground of trying to build a community of like-minded folk. There are dozens of work-retreat businesses in operation at present, and the number looks set to grow. Many can be found by searching Nomad List, which is somewhat of a Yelp for co-working spaces. 

Phillip Gourley is the founder of Web-hosting service Mediapig and a veteran of Hacker Paradise getaways. He said his co-working vacations were the “best way I could have entered into what I was hoping to be a long-term commitment to working remotely and independently.” He added that for those first entering the world of the self-employed, “getting lonely is a thing, and sharing the experience and figuring it out with other people was exciting.” He appreciated how, in the case of his Bali retreat, the entire villa was booked solely for the group, provideing ample opportunity for similarly inclined entrepreneurs to form informal problem-sharing and problem-solving circles.

Gourley said he believes co-work retreats are vehicles to ease people into what is essentially a not-entirely-ideal existence: working alone. “While I’m able to pull it off and so are some others, it’s certainly a harder, often unstable and risky path and not an easier one,” he told the Daily Dot.  

The approach for each “work-cation” varies: Surf Office specializes in offices by known surfing destinations in the likes of Gran Canaria, Spain; Santa Cruz, California; and Lisbon, Portugal. The aforementioned Hacker Paradise features talks and elements of startup business training, as well as informal classes covering “topics like accounting for nomads, programming and development [in] specific areas, to mindfulness and relationships,” explained Gourley. Hubud regularly offers a crash course in Bahasa Indonesia, the local language, as a complement to their other events. 

For the most part, the economic argument for doing a co-working retreat is sound. Prices vary by length of time and location, but they generally are advertised as ranging from $300–$600 USD a month, not including flights. (Coworking Camp claims the price is even cheaper if guests share rooms or volunteer.) In Gourley’s case, he did a co-working vacation for three months for “$2000 excluding flights. That included accommodation, co-working space membership, [SIM] cards, organized group trips, regular included meals and on-the-ground organizing, which included talks and other events.” He saw the trip as a win-win: “I was able to focus on stabilizing income because the logistics were taken care of.” Ironically, as global businesses increase job outsourcing and entering new markets becomes harder for small businesses, one way to make ends meet is to physically outsource yourself—even just for a little while.

#pf2015

A photo posted by Surf Office (@surfoffice) on


As for the Instagram shots, the “another day working in paradise” Facebook marketing, and the lifestyle blogs pushing this idea of the constantly working, constantly traveling nomad? Any experience that involves relocation to a hot place inevitably attracts the perception of escapism and simplified living. But look closer and the co-work paradise may reveal something a little less sunny. 

Have we really fostered a society where increasingly self-employed, increasingly isolated individuals see moving to the other side of the world as the only way to cope with the stress and living costs of work? Co-working retreats seem to be fun, educational, and a clever way of achieving work/life balance in a world hell-bent against it. Yet despite the positives, demand for this rare balance also raises questions of how today’s work economy functions closer to home. 

Image via Simon_sees/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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