Why I decided to go on a cowork vacation in Bali for a month

UBUD, Bali—A monkey scrabbles around a lawn overlooking a lemongreen rice paddy. Fifteen people wearing flipflops, baggy trousers and tanktops are plopping down on some beanbags in the grass.

“Summarize the highlight of your weekend in one sentence. Then tell us what your goals are for today and what you need help with,” says Ben Keene, who’s moderating the “meeting.” A roundtable—or actually, round-beanbag-discussion—follows.

It is Monday morning, 11am at Hubud, a co-working space completely built of bamboo in Ubud, Bali, which has a raw food café and people walking around with t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase Work is Changing.

Another work week has begun.

cafe
Digital nomads at work at Hubud, the co-working space in Ubud, Bali, which is completely made out of bamboo. (Liza Jansen)

I am on a so-called coworkation: a vacation with co-workers, or combining work with a holiday. We do not unplug or send out-of-office emails. With the availability of wireless and high-speed internet, you can work from basically anywhere these days. Then why not from Bali? Where you can start the day doing yoga in a rice paddy, go surfing in the afternoon and climb a volcano—or three in one day if you wish—during the weekend.

The coworkation is organized by Tribewanted, an alternative travel organization building communities, in (often) exotic locations, including a deserted island in Fiji or a beach in post-civil war Sierra Leone. Or in this case Bali, where a startup tribe is being formed. The idea is simple: avoid getting worn down by a European or American winter and build your venture from “Silicon Bali,” as Ubud—mostly known as a pilgrimage place for wellness seekers since Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a part of Eat Pray Love there—has been dubbed. Many digital nomads—mostly bloggers, entrepreneurs, freelance designers—often simply cannot afford to send out-of-office emails for a number of weeks. For a $446 fee, those seeking a work vacation have three months of unlimited access to Hubud and become a member of Tribewanted. (This does not include food or accommodations.) The average monthly living and working costs for digital nomads in Ubud amount to $1,066, a stark contrast to San Francisco where this currently stands at $4,854, or New York City, with average costs of $5,332 per month.

bean bag conference
Morning check-in sessions, setting the goals for the day, are often done on beanbags outside on the lawn. (Liza Jansen)

During our startup coworkation we spend time working on our own projects—in my case: Newspresso.co, a Dutch-language weekly newsletter for women on the go. But we’re building them together by exchanging skills. So rather than spending a few hundred dollars to have someone design a logo for me, I write website copy for a designer in exchange. Fifty percent of our time is spent working on our own startups, 25% on each others, and brainstorming while sauntering through a rice field or descending a volcano. The remaining 25% of our time we help local community projects, or, quite frankly, just chill out and explore Bali’s natural beauty. Apart from being inspired by the surroundings, we’re also especially motivated here because we’re being held accountable, asking each other frequently: “have you accomplished your goals? If not, WHY not? And where do you need help?”

Our startup tribe consists of some 30 people from all over the world. There is a bucket-list consultant setting up a global travel society, a travel blogger going by the name “The Hopeful Vagabond” and a writer of—yes—erotic novels. There’s an online business coach building a platform called Coffee Break and Chocolate Cake—providing inspiration for a coffee break (preferably with chocolate cake)—a model/lifestyle coach, and a NASA-funded astrophysicist developing innovative science education programs. Some stay for three weeks, others for the maximum three-month span. Despite everyone being considerably different, one thing connects us: an intrinsic curiosity—a boundless belief in each other’s capacities to start a—we hope—groundbreaking new venture that we’re passionate about. We share our skills through workshops and ask each other (tough) questions. All while “keeping our heads in the cloud but our feet on the ground,” as Ben Keene, our tribe leader and founder of Tribewanted, reminds us frequently.

Going on a coworkation—co-creating your venture with other digital nomads—or just working from a holiday-like destination—is becoming increasingly popular. A 2013 survey by PGI, a global provider of conferencing and collaboration solutions, showed that 82% of the 500 US employees surveyed connect to the office while on vacation.

Welcome to your workation. (Liza Jansen)

Tribewanted isn’t the only coworkations operator. A number of organizations have recently begun to offer certain types of holidays. Including Hacker Paradise, which is being organized for the second time this year. The idea is similar to Tribewanted Bali: a three-month long coworking holiday in three different locations with other entrepreneurs and digital nomads: start in Da Nang (Vietnam), continue in Ubud (Bali) and end in Chiang Mai (Thailand). It costs between $600 and $1,500, which includes workspace, accommodation, some meals and activities. They’ll report what they’re working on at the beginning of the day while engaging in social activities in the evenings and on weekends.

When Casey Rosengren, a Philadelphia-based engineer, organized the first Hacker Paradise last year in Costa Rica—which included working from a hotel on the beach—he said this 12-week period reminded him of his student years. “You spent day and night together and bond very, very quickly,” he recalls in a Skype-interview from a co-working space in Tokyo, where he—as a diehard digital nomad—is currently residing for a number of weeks.

Other organizations that offer coworkations or set up temporarily coworking spaces in exotic locations for entrepreneurs and other location-independent workers include Coworking Camp, Workawaycamp or Flaks.

Two digital entrepreneurs holding a brainstorming sessions at Hubud. (Liza Jansen)

I’ve been coworkationing for about a month now. As opposed to what I (and my friends and family) would’ve expected, working from a tropical island has proven productive. More productive than I generally am when working from my hometown Amsterdam. How is that possible?

As the startup tribe is keen to make the most of their stay here, and wants to explore as much of the island as possible, we try to limit the amount of time spent behind a computer screen. This means that the time we are staring at our MacBooks is spent as efficiently and effectively as possible. We’d rather discuss each others’ projects while catching a sunset and drinking a Bintang beer than hold a brainstorm session in a plain meeting room.

What’s more is that Hubud is filled with such diversely skilled people, resulting in, quoting Tribe-member Andy McLean, “getting any work related issues—(read: stuff on the internet)—done in the fastest way possible.” The majority of the 30-plus tribe members have extended their stay while here and are already plotting return next year. So am I. But not for a month this time—a minimum of three months.

Follow Liza on Twitter @LizaJansen. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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