Thanks to technology it’s never been easier for business owners to leave the office for holiday time or vacation. It’s staying connected without ruining time off that’s the difficult part.
Take Tashieka Brewer, founder of Melange PR in Hoboken, N.J., who has discovered that text messaging and emailing for work while, say, on the beach wrecks a relaxing moment and causes friction with loved ones. One time in Miami Beach, her annoyed friends got up and walked away. And on another memorable occasion in Los Angeles, a family member actually grabbed her BlackBerry and threw it.
“You get these gadgets so you can take more vacations, but it kind of gets in the way,” Brewer says. While she’s grateful to leave the brick-and-mortar office behind, sometimes she finds herself asking, “are you really on vacation?”
Indeed, while laptops, cellphones and handheld devices have allowed entrepreneurs greater mobility, the technology also keeps them tethered to the business. To be sure, the problem isn’t limited to business owners: Workaholics and corporate employees alike report that electronics have interrupted many a down moment and blurred the line between work and personal life.
Business owners, however, appear more prone than most to abuse technology during their limited leisure time. On average, 75% of small-business owners say they check in either by phone or email with their business while they are away, according to the OPEN from American Express Small Business Monitor, a semi-annual survey of business owners conducted in May. About one-third check in several times a day, with some touching base once an hour, the survey found.
Many owners say they worry about losing important clients or customers if they take a vacation; others say they don’t trust staff’s judgment calls. Technology allows many to strike a compromise: They can step away without feeling so removed.
This past September, photographer Mark Robert Halper who owns a studio in Los Angeles went to Europe for his honeymoon. In between catching the sights of London, Venice and the south of France, he took calls from the office, wrote up estimates, closed a few deals and even hosted a web conference. “If I feel out of touch, then I’m not relaxed,” he says. “Fortunately, my wife understands that.”
The problem is that a “working” vacation can easily become just working, says Kerry Patterson, co-author of “Crucial Confrontations,” a book about interpersonal skills, who has studied the effects of technology on the workplace. “It will take you two days to get emotionally into your vacation,” he says. A work-related email can snap you out in minutes. A business owner who thinks they can just take “five minutes” to check on the office often takes far more, especially if problems have arisen in their absence, he says. “It’s not just five minutes, it’s the entire vacation. It casts a pall,” he says. “People need to be aware of the implication on themselves — on their own mental state — and their families.”
Jacqueline Church Simonds, owner of book publisher Beagle Bay in Reno, Nev., found herself in an unfortunate predicament in January, when she and her husband took a cruise around Australia and New Zealand for two-and-half weeks. She had pledged not to check work email while on board the ship, but soon found herself going through Internet withdrawal. “We’re [cruising] along the east coast of Australia, and it’s this gorgeous area, and I’m sitting there like I have a coffee jones, just shaking and saying ‘I have to look at my email!'” she recalls.
From the ship’s Internet café, Simonds (a solo entrepreneur) emailed a temporary employee she’d left in charge and found the woman was mishandling things. Simonds spent the rest of the cruise stopping by the Internet café at least twice a day, and arranging for emergency back-up to help the woman. She’s not pleased with how much technology interfered, and will make sure she has a full-time employee in place before taking another vacation.
One way for business owners to ease off the technology is to plan well in advance, including alerting clients that they’ll be gone and delegating responsibilities to trustworthy staff. “Recognize that part of your goal is to let the company run without you,” says Julie Lenzer Kirk, president of Path Forward International, a small-business consulting firm in Damascus, Md. “The business owner shouldn’t be indispensable.”
Opinions vary on whether you should check email or make work calls at all while on vacation. Many business owners say they are too stressed if they don’t. If you have to check in, set some boundaries, such as limiting checking emails to certain times of the day, such as morning and evening, says Tory Johnson, a workplace expert and founder of job-fair company Women For Hire in New York. “You are doing yourself and your business a disservice if you don’t take that vacation and get rejuvenated,” she says.
The Tech-Friendly Vacation
The experts interviewed for this story agreed that the best way to break the reliance on technology is to feel comfortable leaving the business in the first place. Alert clients and customers well in advance; train employees to handle projects — and problems — in your absence. If you don’t have employees, consider a reliable virtual assistant.
Still, most business owners don’t feel comfortable checking out entirely when they take a vacation. But there are ways to limit electronic interruptions. Here’s how:
Let technology work for you . Utilize the “out of office” automatic email reply so that clients or customers are notified or reminded that you are on vacation. “People accept this,” says Johnson, of Women For Hire in New York. “If people contacting you don’t hear anything, that’s when they get anxious or annoyed.”
Cut out the junk . Set up folders though your email program to filter less important messages — such as newsletters, daily schedules or even lunch menus — so you don’t have to sift through trivial messages when you check email. Train staff to label their emails to you as priority or nonpriority. One system they can use is “FYI” (for your information) or “NYI” (need your input) in the subject line to differentiate, suggests Kirk, of Path Forward.
Stick to the basics . “Take your Bluetooth headset off, and leave it at home,” Kirk says. “If you have it, you might use it.” By limiting the number of gadgets you bring, you effectively limit how much time you’ll spend doing work-related stuff. For owners who find it impossible to leave a wireless email device behind, program it to turn off during key times, such as during the day, or after 9 p.m.
Make sure the technology works before you leave home . Don’t waste more time during your vacation cursing a laptop with a faulty modem. Halper, the photographer who videoconferenced on his honeymoon, suggests testing all devices and researching Internet availability and roaming fees at your final destination before getting on the plane.
Set specific times to check email
and honor those . Business owners who travel with family members, for instance, often set aside early-morning time, before the kids are awake, to tend to work matters. Above all: Resist the temptation to constantly check email or make work calls. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” Kirk says.
(“Balancing Work & Life,” a weekly column written by Colleen DeBaise for smSmallBiz.com, advises entrepreneurs on how to better balance their lives. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
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