Call Back Later: The Small-Business Office is on Vacation

As a small-business owner, how do you balance a vacation and a small business? Read on for our expert advice.

Here’s a quick quiz for small-business owners (SBOs): when you hear the words “two week vacation,” do you experience longing, dread, or both emotions simultaneously?

If you answered “longing,” you’re probably overdue for a vacation. If you immediately experienced dread, you’re probably concerned that the business will collapse without you. And if you experienced both, well, you’re a small- business owner.

An Intuit small-business survey reports that over two-thirds of small-business owners experience significant stress during vacations. The idea of missing work, disappointing a client, or leaving the business in the hands of a subordinate overwhelms many small-business owners. Without breaks and vacations, however, company owners become even more stressed and less productive. It’s an unnecessary pattern, because small-business owners can take vacations with a little planning.

Keep Clients Informed

In the age of email, Skype, and texts, business clients get frustrated when they don’t receive immediate responses to their messages. You may worry that taking a break from the office will upset your important clients.

The solution is simple—so simple that many SBOs overlook it. Contact your clients and tell them when you’ll be on vacation. Give them plenty of lead-time so they can make alternate arrangements. The same client who gets grumpy if he waits longer than a day for an email response reacts much more positively if he knows you’re on vacation.

Clearing Your Desk

Before going on vacation, make sure to finish any projects. Do this, and you can relax on the beach without the shadow of an upcoming deadline blotting out the sun.

Of course, this may mean working some extra hours in the weeks leading up to your vacation, but the payoff is worth the time. You get to relax on your vacation, and your clients know you’re responsible and driven enough to go the extra mile to meet their needs.

Out-of-Office Emails

Setting up an automated out-of-office email message reminds clients that you’re off sunning yourself in paradise, while also reminding them when you’ll be back in the office soon enough.

If you’re concerned about missing important emails, you can check your business correspondence on vacation. Be disciplined, however—it’s all too easy to log into your email “for a few minutes” in the morning only to discover you’re still working at sunset. If you absolutely must check work email on vacation, set aside a half-hour a day to do so. Explain in your out-of-office message that you will check in at that time, and that time only.

Delegating Tasks

Oh no, the “D” word! Your small business is your brainchild. You know how it works, you know what needs doing, and you know (hopefully) how to handle any emergencies. Giving up control of that to someone else produces a feeling not unlike giving a sixteen-year old the keys to your new car—abject, all-consuming terror.

Your employees, however, are probably quite capable of handling your business in your absence. Designate one trusted staff member as your representative, and leave detailed lists of each employee’s responsibilities. Often the process is a revelation: You may discover that you could have delegated some tasks to subordinates long ago, whether you’re at work or on vacation.

Another option is to arrange with another company owner in your field to cover for each other during vacations. This only works, of course, if you trust each other, as you’re leaving your business in the hands of a competitor.

Easing into a Vacation

If, like many small-business owners, you dread the idea of leaving the office unattended, you may have to ease yourself into the idea. Start small—take a Friday afternoon off on a slow workweek and enjoy a long weekend. A little later, take a Thursday and Friday off. See? Four days away from the office (counting the weekend), and the place is still standing.

It’s silly, but easing yourself into the idea of vacations can help you prepare for one. Every time you take a mini break, prepare the office as if you were leaving for two weeks. When you get back from a mini break, evaluate how well the office reacted to your absence. Chances are you’ll find things went just fine. It can be a bit of an ego blow to realize that your employees can function perfectly well without you. Turn that feeling around. It’s not that you’re irrelevant; it’s that you trained them so well.

Checking in or checking out?

Some small-business owners feel they absolutely must check in with the office regularly during a vacation. Others are happy to keep their cell phones available in case of emergency, and still others think that work has no place at all in a vacation.

Whatever your views, be sure to make them clear to clients and staff before you leave for your vacation. And remember, it’s what works best for you: If working 30 minutes a day helps you relax for the rest of the vacation, you’ll probably have a more restful break than if you cut all ties with the office. If, however, you plan on dropping off the grid for two weeks, make sure everyone knows you’re about to disappear.

Vacation Apps

Many mobile apps designed with the small-business road warrior in mind help you stay connected during your break. Skype allows you to chat with folks back at the office, while Dropbox lets you review files and employee work from anywhere on the planet. You can also use Facebook to reach out to employees or clients, if need be.

You can use mobile apps to work during those portions of the vacation that aren’t much fun, such as long waits in airport terminals. Then again, you could also pass the time playing Angry Birds—heck, it’s your vacation.

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