A List Apart

Rachel Andrew on the Business of Web Dev

How Do You Go on Vacation?

I sent one of our regular newsletters today to our customer email list and then watched as a steady stream of autoresponses came back from everyone who is currently on summer vacation. At this time of year many of us, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, are thinking of vacations and trips away.

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The idea that everyone should get time off away from their business, perhaps even completely disconnected from the internet, is a pervasive one. I’ve seen terms such as “digital detox” used in the media, as if technology was somehow a poison in our lives. The BBC recently published an article posing the question, “Should you delete all emails you get while you are on holiday,” which quoted people who feel that the knowledge that emails will be waiting for them on their return will prevent them relaxing while away from the office.

While employees of a business should expect uninterrupted personal time as outlined in their terms of employment, how can the owner of a small business get time away from the office? When I write and talk about running a product business as a married team of two, the question about vacation comes up in almost every conversation. There is an assumption that people need to take a complete break from working on their business. This idea then leads people to believe that it is impossible for the business owner to take a “proper vacation” if that period of time is interrupted by work things.

When you run a product business with customers from every time zone, trying to stick to a schedule of working 9 till 5 with set times off for holidays would make little sense. Support requests and pre-sales emails come in at all times of day and night—even on days such as Christmas Day that are typically very quiet for Western audiences but a regular working day in other parts of the world. However, it makes no difference to the customer I am helping if I offer that help sat at my desk, at a coffee shop, or on the beach. Rather than being a way to constantly tie me to my work, the fact that I can access the internet from my phone becomes a way to keep my business running with minimal fuss while I enjoy visiting somewhere new. Far from technology poisoning our lives, I believe it is a huge enabler of a flexible way of working.

Since we moved from services to products, we have steadily moved away from being tied to set business hours. I work out what I need to achieve each week and then structure my time around that. I can go to the gym at two in the afternoon, when it is really quiet. I can decide to head out for a run when I’m blocked on something that I’m working on. I can work when I am at my most productive—even if that is five thirty on a Sunday morning—and clean the kitchen when my brain has decided to have an off day.

When the rare event that is a sunny, hot day in Britain occurs, Drew and I can down tools and enjoy it rather than sit in an office looking sadly out of the window at the sun. If we decide to have a vacation or day off—be that at home or away—then the only thing that has to be done is respond to support and any pre-sales queries that come in. We can easily do that while stopping for a coffee somewhere that has wifi, or in the downtime before heading out for the evening. Our constraint is internet access; we couldn’t choose a location without reasonably reliable wifi or available mobile data connectivity. However, that doesn’t rule out anywhere on my list!

There is a lot you can do to ensure that you get plenty of uninterrupted time on holiday. Some business owners hire someone to do frontline support, even temporarily. That person can then deal with simple queries and queue up those that need you to look at them. Having some kind of helpdesk system in place rather than supporting your product via email can make this much easier.

While we were still a services business, to enable us to be out of the office but know that important calls would still get through, we used a virtual Personal Assistant service. Even without clients, that service is still a useful one. They save us from dealing with cold callers, explain to people phoning for Perch support that they need to use our support helpdesk, and ensure that genuine messages do get through to us via email so we can call back.

Also, just before vacation or travel, we avoid doing things that will encourage a lot of email queries or create a need for more support. Starting a new advertising campaign or pushing out a new release are best done when we know we will be in the office for the next few days—despite the temptation to get things shipped before going away. When we had clients, I would also give them fair warning of our absence and explain that if the servers blew up we would be checking in, but that we weren’t scheduling any actual work for these days. This ensured that they knew they were not left exposed in terms of disaster response by using a smaller business, and could plan ahead for any work they needed us to do before we went away.

What I am not advocating is that the business owner needs to be always on, permanently ruled by a smartphone and incoming emails. I believe that by redefining time off, by creating space and time off throughout your daily life, the need to run away from your business for a week at a time may become less pressing. By accepting that you may need to do a minimum amount of work each day, you save the stress of wondering what might be waiting for you on your return. In doing so, you also bring a spirit of freedom and flexibility into your everyday life, rather than reserving it for two weeks a year.

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