“Are you travelling anywhere soon?” was a common question I’d hear from my travel-inclined friends whenever we met before Covid-19.
Whether we had plans or not, that question tended to lead to an interesting conversation, as we could exchange itineraries, tell stories of our adventures overseas, or just commiserate about why work was crazy as usual, such that our next trip would have to be in "x months’ time."
Travel — or even just talking about travel — was an escape from present realities, after all — a way to put “real life” and all its problems on hold, the perfect excuse to write “Pls note that I will have limited access to email from 07/09 to 13/09 as I will be climbing mountains in remote areas.”
My friends don’t ask me about my travel plans anymore, obviously.
But I can just imagine that if I’d answered “I’m going on a staycation soon”, seasoned globe-trotters would not have been impressed.
A staycation just doesn’t have the same appeal as a trip overseas, they might say. You’d get to sleep in a plush hotel bed, but at the end of the day, still be “stuck” in the same stuffy Singapore.
Which is why I was initially sceptical about the idea of a “workation” (work + vacation), which the Singapore Tourism Board, together with its hotel partners, had kindly offered to arrange.
A quick browse of the “Accommodation” page on the Singapore Tourism Board (STB)’s VisitSingapore website shows a number of hotels offering work-from-hotel or workation packages, where you spend your day in a hotel room
Some allow check-ins as early as 7am — presumably for those “hack your productivity” types who kick off their days with a morning swim and/or gym session and/or spinach smoothie.
There are packages for overnight stays as well as day use, and many come with dining credits which you can redeem at the hotel restaurants.
Tan Yen Nee, a director in the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) shared that “workation” offerings “boost demand for hotels during weekdays or off-peak periods, and provide hotels with an additional revenue stream during this challenging period.”
I could see how it would work for the hotels, since staycations are likely to be in greater demand on the weekends.
But would it work for hotel guests?
My first ever workation experience was to be had at lyf Funan.
A friend who has travelled between Singapore and Jakarta for work more times than I have been to Joo Koon suggested that it could be like a business trip, except that you don’t get to leave the country.
Still, isn’t “workation” just another name for “working from a hotel”? I wondered to myself.
And if so, what could possibly convince someone to fork out a chunk of their hard-earned salary for this?
I couldn’t figure it out, and even drafted a working headline for this article along the lines of “I went on a 2D1N ‘workation’ and here’s why it will be my last”.
Here’s how my stay at lyf Funan changed my mind.
Reason 1: Flex that flexibility
I realised that spending one day working from a hotel is only possible because of the current “new normal”. The level of flexibility that many workers in Singapore now have, in terms of choosing our work arrangements, is quite unprecedented.
Telecommuting became a norm for many during the Circuit Breaker, mostly due to the need for “business continuity” and not “flexible work arrangements”. Then, the priority was to find a safe way for some sectors of the economy to keep running (and for us to still have jobs to do, of course).
Now that we have exited the Circuit Breaker, companies are still encouraged to allow working from home where possible, even while offices have reopened — a far cry from the days when MOM would take action after finding that people had gone to the office when they didn’t need to.
Still, I hardly left the house and only went to office when absolutely necessary. Partly out of habit, partly out of laziness. Which meant that the flexibility I had wasn’t being utilised at all.
So I decided, on the day of my “workation”, that I would drag myself out to the office in the morning for a (Zoom) meeting, and clear some work before checking in at 3pm.
This would have been something totally inconceivable last year, I thought to myself, as I left the office shortly after lunch.
Reason 2: A change of environment
Starting from the lobby on Level 4, lyf’s “Ambassador of Buzz” Aashta gave me a very quick tour of the facilities before showing me to my room.
A beer vending machine was also available, though I didn't see anyone use it.
I guess it could be an issue with location (in the laundry area along with the washing machines) or atmosphere (in the laundry area along with the washing machines).
The exercise area at lyf comprises free weights, kettlebells, yoga mats, and two exercise bikes.
There was also a common kitchen, replete with rows of microwave ovens and cooking areas, as well as shared fridges with stickers and markers provided for guests to label their food.
lyf, after all, mainly functions as a serviced apartment for those on longer stays.
The room I was in is what lyf calls a “One of a Kind (Studio)”, a compact setup which mainly comprises a double bed on a wooden platform which serves as storage space for luggage or other items.
Instead of a wardrobe, there is a rack and some hangers, as well as some drawers which contain a hairdryer.
There is also a small desk provided in the room, but I chose to plonk myself on the bed to work — a habit that I picked up ever since I started working from home.
From the bed, I also spied a small but peaceful-looking pool area, but a quick Google search told me that the pool was only for members of TFX gym in the mall.
And so I settled in and got to work (yes, I did actually work) in the almost-absolute peace and quiet of the room.
It wasn't long before I started to get a bit peckish, but there was no office pantry to go to, obviously, and it would have been quite a trip down to the mall just to get snacks. This worked out in the end, as being slightly hungry probably helped to keep me awake while working in the cozy bed.
Reason 3: Exploring my new location
Based on occupancy rates during the school term break in July this year, city staycations are apparently less popular than staycations in Sentosa, said Margaret Heng, Executive Director of the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), in an email interview.
Sentosa’s resorts still do offer a beach holiday somewhat reminiscent of Phuket or Bali, albeit with higher prices and different vibes.
But I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of working in the so-called “state of fun”, and opted for a city staycation despite thinking that it’d probably be uninteresting.
This is tiny Singapore, after all, right? What is there to explore or discover?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Because the city as we know it (or, as I thought I knew it) is changing.
How is it changing? Like how a caterpillar changes when it’s in a cocoon, perhaps. Nothing seems to be happening, even while transformation is taking place beneath the surface.
It’s a subtle process, one that I was glad my workation allowed me the time to observe and spot the tell-tale signs: the uneasy quietness of a main road at 7pm; a tattered “Closed” sign pasted stuck on the glass doors of a tourist gift shop.
If there is a downside of working from home, it is that the lines between work and rest start to blur and before you know it, you’re “getting off” work at 9pm.
However, knowing that I was in a hotel in the heart of Singapore’s Civic District (and on a semi-vacation too!) made me more aware of the time.
At 7pm on the dot, I shut my laptop, got out of the comfy bed and headed out for an evening run.
I stood for a while and counted cars going by the stately Old Hill Street Police Station just across the road from Funan, before starting my run.
The Jubilee Bridge and nearby Merlion viewing platform saw some light traffic — mostly runners and cyclists out exercising.
The Merlion itself has evidently had a more peaceful time lately.
A nearby tourist shop, selling Merlion statues and other kitsch, was understandably closed.
In front of the Victoria Concert Hall, I stood on the road for two minutes waiting for someone to walk into my photo, because that’s how quiet the streets were.
I got my photos and got back onto the pavement, though it was another few minutes before a bus — with a handful of passengers — came rolling down the otherwise-empty street.
I ended my run near the Padang, where small groups were picnicking in the cool of the evening, and went off in search of dinner.
Same same, but different
Thankfully, not everything had gone into hibernation, as evidenced by the crowd at some F&B outlets in Chijmes.
Not many places saw crowds though.
Unable to dangle the conventional lures of live music and late-night drinks, I wondered to myself if any of the wait staff at usually-rowdy watering holes would feel like bursting into “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast if a group of customers eventually turns up.
The lack of crowds did make it easy to take photos, though.
By this point, it almost felt like I was on holiday, discovering Singapore’s “new normal”.
I quite enjoyed the experience of exploring the city on my own, unbothered by noise and crowds, and decided that I would wander around till I came across something interesting to eat, as I like to do when I’m overseas.
I could further pretend to be overseas by doing some shopping too, I thought, but hadn’t anticipated that a number of shops in Raffles City Shopping Centre would be closing early, in view of the crowd situation.
Reason 4: Code-switching
I was anything but a hapless tourist, though, and not about to be stranded with nothing interesting to do.
I put my “kiasu Singaporean” hat back on, and it didn’t take me long to think of a place in the area with dinner offerings I wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere, with a promotion to boot.
Satiated, I headed back to my room for a shower, finished up some work, and decided to have an early night.
Reason 5: Starting the (next) day right
While many of the “workation” packages offered do not involve overnight stays, I opted for one, as I’d wanted to spend the evening out.
I also had an appointment in the city area in the afternoon after check-out, so staying overnight saved me some travelling time too.
And, I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s just something quite wonderful about waking up in a hotel.
I’m also a huge fan of breakfast, and of the dry mee sua from Yan Kee Noodle House on Circular Road, just ten minutes from my accommodation.
I also managed to find my way to The Glasshouse, a cafe in Chijmes which is perpetually crowded on weekends.
That morning, I was one of just three patrons in the cafe. It was a rare moment of quiet, which I savoured along with my coffee while getting caught up on emails.
Then it was back to the room where I continued working till the 12pm checkout time.
I realised that making that short trip out of the room for breakfast and coffee helped me get into a much better frame of mind: I was consciously starting my work day, instead of having work interrupt my rest.
Have I been “working from home” or “living in office”?
I have been working from home mostly since earlier this year, only heading to the office for important meetings or when I didn’t have a choice.
While I didn’t like it at first, it slowly grew on me, and I started to appreciate how the savings on commuting, and not eating out, were adding up quite nicely.
On the other hand, I was walking less than 2,000 steps on some days and I did miss the outside world, now that Phase 2 is in full swing.
I also found that work was on my mind almost all the time, no thanks to just how easy it is for me to carry on working past official working hours, since I was already at home anyway.
While this 2D1N stay didn’t exactly change my life, the best thing about the experience was that it broke the routine, and gave me a much-needed reminder of the value of doing something different every once in a while.
I had not realised just how much the work-from-home routine had impacted my lifestyle and well-being — especially since it’s been quite some time since I last took leave to go somewhere.
What do I think of STB’s hybrid work-and-vacation concept? If I ever find myself caught up with work and too busy to take leave, I would take a workation again.
After all, I know my way around well enough to be able to squeeze in both work and play in the limited free time that I’d have in the evening and the morning.
As it is now, though, I can certainly afford the leave, as I’m not expecting to travel overseas anytime soon. And a staycation/workation is now something I’d be happy to save up for, once in a while.
If you aim for the earlier part of the week, a room for two goes for as low as S$108 per night, so all you need to do is cut down a little on fancy meals, and maybe the weekly bubble tea.
Almost like what we used to do with overseas holidays.
Top photos by Nigel Chua. Special thanks to STB and lyf Funan.