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HUMAN RESOURCES

The Great Escape

Technology has made it possible for entrepreneurs to stay connected when they're out of the office. That's also the problem.
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Whenever Jay Reddy takes a vacation, he sends his PDA and laptop on one too.

"I leave them somewhere inaccessible to keep me from constantly checking e-mails," says Reddy, the founder and CEO of ProLogic, a Fairmont, W. Va.-based technology-services firm. Despite the temptation to stay connected with his business -- and a growing number of high-tech tools to do just that at anytime from anywhere in the world -- Reddy says he's still able to make a clean break with his family for several weeks every year. "In the first three years after I launched the business, I don't think I took a single day off," he says.     

Most aren't so lucky. Like a growing number of entrepreneurs, Karen Say, the CEO of Saybr Contractors in Tacoma, Wash., never really leaves her workplace behind, whether she's at home or on vacation. "I'm a business owner, so I'm always connected with my business," Say says. That means occasionally spending weekends in her home office, or taking her Blackberry along on holidays -- and everywhere else she goes.

When it comes to taking a break, small-business owners are finding that advanced information technology and expanding communication networks that provide round-the-clock access to e-mail, business data, and other systems can be a double-edged sword. While offering greater flexibility in schedules and access, they're also quickly blurring the lines between the work and play. Within the ramped up competition of a 24/7 business cycle, they say, downtime is fast becoming a four-letter word.    

In a recent survey of more than 600 small-business owners by OPEN from American Express, nearly half considered downtime a guilty pleasure. In continually keeping track of their businesses, many said they were forced to routinely make sacrifices in their personal lives, including less time with family and friends, and even less attention to their health.

It's hardly surprisingly, then, that fewer small-business owners are planning to take vacations this summer -- just 59 percent compared to an average of 67 percent over the past four years, a separate OPEN survey found. Even among those that manage to get away, the vast majority will be taking their businesses with them. Seventy-five percent said they would check in by phone or e-mail, some as often as once every hour.

In a recent survey of 1,000 small-business owners by Discover, 59 percent said a "day off" meant they were still available for calls and e-mails, and included working a full day from a remote location. Nearly half said they worked through most official holidays.

"Small-business owners are optimistic by nature," says Alice Bredin, OPEN's small-business adviser. "But when they're not in the driver's seat, even if for a few days, they often can't relax."

So what are they so worried about? Most of the business owners surveyed by OPEN said they were concerned customers weren't getting the same level of service from staff while they were away. That, and employees making poor judgment calls or just plain slacking off.

When Mary Derby took her first vacation in three years from pullUin, her Vermillion, S.D., software firm, it happened to fall in the middle of a protracted contract dispute with a client.

"I kept checking in the entire time and it would put a damper on the whole day," Derby says. "It pretty much ruined my holiday," she says.

Now, to get the time off she needs, Derby has officially barred herself from checking any work-related e-mail or voicemail during a vacation. She also lets her staff know there isn't anything that can't wait for her attention. And like Reddy, she now leaves her cell phone and PDA behind. "I found that it's been better for me and for the business," Derby says.

However they manage it, Bredin says it's crucial that business owners recharge their batteries and creativity now and then by taking a clean break.

To do that, Bredin suggests walking employees through the work process and discussing step-by-step instructions to solve issues that might arise while they're away. They should also prepare employees for the worst with viable solutions, while giving them the resources they need to handle day-to-day business affairs, such as key contact information for support resources from your technology providers.

Say adds that it's important to plan ahead for leisure time, even months in advance, rather than wait for a window of opportunity.

"You just have to schedule it," she says, "or it won't happen."




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