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How to take a “total break” on your next holiday

We all know it’s harder than ever to switch off from work – cloud-based systems and smart devices are both a blessing and a curse. As small business owners, ignoring our business for any length of time can feel like neglecting the cries of a tiny child. You’re leaving the team in the lurch, disaster is sure to strike while you’re offline, and critical opportunities will inevitably be missed.

I probably don’t need to convince you that a holiday is worthwhile personally. The change of scenery, relaxed vibe, slower pace, fresh perspective on the things that matter. But as an entrepreneur, it’s taken me many attempts at travel, holidays and “switching off” to really grasp the value of a total break for business owners of all sizes.

I recently took a month-long trip to Canada with my husband (who also works on MTB Direct), and our two young daughters. It took some careful planning to make a “total break” happen, but not only were there massive personal benefits, I realised that our business and team were better for it too.

As a family-run business, my husband and I make a deliberate effort to spend time together that doesn’t involve work. We recognise that some day, we may not run a business together, our kids will grow up, and we’ll be forced to find different things to talk about! So it’s an exercise in future-proofing our relationship. 

We also use travel as an opportunity to remind ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place. For a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs, a guiding value is freedom. There is no freedom in being a slave to your emails and your business – who among us hasn’t thought at least once “I’d be better off working for someone else – more money and less stress!”.

We try to integrate that pursuit of freedom into our work/life balance, rather than seeing it as an ultimate end goal that we can only achieve through a big financial exit from business.

Why a total break is totally worth it

What I found most interesting about our extended break was just how good it was for the business. When we came back, we received feedback from several team members that they had actually found our being 100 per cent offline to be quite beneficial. My first thought was “oh no – I must micromanage!”, followed quickly by “heck I’ll go on holidays all the time!”. But it’s more nuanced than that.

A staff member who was relatively new reported that it was the perfect time for him to “cut reliance” on my husband (whose managerial role he had taken over), while another team member said he found himself having to back his own decisions more. He knew that 99 per cent of the time, when he ran a decision by us, we would agree with his logic – but having no-one to validate the decisions forced him to back himself, and his confidence soared as a result.

By taking a total break from the business, we were modelling exactly what we expect from our team. We believe strongly in work/life balance, because “time is valuable”. We encourage our team to give 100 per cent when they are on the clock, and then to totally tune out from work when they are offline.

This is particularly important because our entire team works remotely, from home, so it’s easy to let work creep outside of its designated boundaries if they’re not careful. We don’t ever want our business negatively impacting on our employee’s lives – we want it to be an enabler of the lives they want to live (by living near mountain bike trails, not having to commute, and having the flexibility to spend time with the people that matter).

So if I was answering emails while on holiday, how are my team to know what I truly expect of them when they are on a break – they’ll have that niggling doubt that they too are supposed to be contactable out-of-hours (they’re not), or responding when on leave (absolutely not!). Do what I say, and what I do! 

How we did it

To make a total break happen, we needed to ensure that the business was robust and could cope without us. This has been an ongoing goal over a number of years, and has shaped a culture in which we document everything so there is no tacit knowledge, we have clear escalation paths and ownership for different systems and processes, and we empower all of our staff to make decisions without needing to check or get approval. Not only does this enable great holidays, but it makes us a more efficient and sustainable organisation every day. 

Before leaving, we made sure the team knew when we were going to be away, and who to contact for support if they needed it. I also set expectations with everyone trying to contact me through my out-of-office in the image above, which I always activate a day or two prior to leaving to give myself a bit of breathing space to clear my inbox before I go!

As it turns out, very little “urgent” communication is truly urgent. People who had seemingly urgent requests reached out to our general support email, and even most of those requests weren’t truly urgent.

It’s worth reminding ourselves sometimes that it’s not life-or-death – as wonderful as e-commerce and running a business is, typically we are not doing anything so grand that lives are on the line. Even if we do drop a ball here or there, it’ll probably turn out just fine in the end. That’s what I tell my team, and that’s what I like to remind myself.

One month and many runs down Whistler mountain later, we came back refreshed, inspired and ready to dive in alongside a team who were thriving and feeling more empowered than ever. I’m calling it a complete win/win! 

Jen Geale is the co-founder and GM of MTB Direct, and was one of Internet Retailing’s Top 50 People in E-Commerce in 2018 and 2019.

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