Those who believe starting a business means fewer hours will probably find themselves mistaken. In reality, small-business owners may be some of the hardest working people in the world, regardless of industry or sector.
It can be especially difficult to sustain effective work-life balance when your business is growing and it feels as if there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Additionally, when the pace of business has picked up substantially, you and your employees may be feeling the pinch.
According to a 2015 Ernst & Young study, a third of full-time employees in some of the world’s largest economies say maintaining good work-life balance has become more difficult in the last five years.
Since a culture of good work-life balance can be established and encouraged from the top, I asked three small-business owners how they achieve work-life balance during growth periods and also how they model and promote healthy habits for their employees. Here are the insights William Bauer, managing director of Royce Leather Gifts in New Jersey, Rob Biederman, co-founder of Hourly Nerd in Boston, and Mike Mannon, president at WD Communications in Philadelphia, shared with us.
During times when your business is growing like gangbusters and it seems you’ll never get everything accomplished, is work-life balance still a priority for you?
Rob Biederman: Work-life balance is always difficult to maintain in hyper-growth mode. However, through long-term planning, I aim to maintain an average balance over the course of a year, even if there are certain weeks and months when work takes over a relatively unhealthy amount of time. I’ve tried to align my formal work breaks with periods of customer slowness—typically, August and late December holidays—to maximize selling time as a percent of my working year, and to be most impactful in those interactions.
William Bauer: Work-life balance always has to take priority. The more my employees and I feel as though our lives are out of balance, the more likely we will pay a physical and emotional price—and so will our business.
Mike Mannon: In times of intense growth, work-life balance is a priority, but home life definitely takes a hit. I feel like I'm better than I was at 30, or 40. When I'm at home, I want to make sure that I look my kids in the eyes as they're going off to school, try to give them a big hug and an "I love you." Same for my wife! It helps me breathe better when I have to duck back in to start the cycle of calls and meetings and decisions.
How do you model good work-life balance for your employees—meaning, how do you show them that as an owner, it’s possible to do a good job and still pay attention to other priorities?
Bauer: Especially as my business is growing, I find myself immersed in the day-to-day needs of the company—from finding and hiring talent to marketing the opportunities. It’s hard to break away even for an hour, much less for a vacation. However, I take all of my allotted three weeks of vacation time, and I encourage my employees to do the same. After a vacation, we come back to work feeling refreshed and more productive.
Mannon: I’ve personally stopped cell phone use at family meal times. Also, I take one week of vacation a year to a location with no cell service. The Blue Ridge Mountains are my respite.
Biederman: The employees will only have work-life balance as healthy as the executives demonstrate. Consequently, it’s important for executives to spend some of their working time “secretly”—e.g., at home and not signed in to office communication software. This way, owners can get in all of their required working hours but without setting an “always on” example for the junior staff who will look to them for guidance.
If you observed that an employee was working himself or herself to burnout, what would you do?
Mannon: I have observed it, and it's tough. We're in an industry where, because of the travel and client demands, there are times during the year when there's very little down time. During those times, I ease off on the additional project work and try to be as supportive as possible. If we can bring in another consultant to give someone a break, we do it. I've learned the hard way that the bit of profit you lose is worth it.
Bauer: I tell my employees who seem to be burned out to embrace the off button. Every phone, computer, etc., has an off button. It's there to be used. When you unplug and step back, you will start to experience one of life’s greatest treasures: perspective. You will think about problems you are wrestling with greater clarity. You allow yourself the freedom to be more analytical and less emotional when you step away and think versus just diving in and responding in the moment.
Biederman: We strongly encourage longtime employees to take vacations—true ones, where they really unplug totally. Many of the diehards will try to avoid these rules. But, typically with some coaching, junior folks will understand that investing in a quick break one to two weeks a year can make them materially more effective during the remaining 50 weeks.
What policies do you have in place to facilitate work-life balance on an ongoing basis? Do you uphold these during your busy season, or during intense periods of growth?
Biederman: While there are obviously periods where the work just needs to get done, we are fastidious about making our junior team members go home when they attempt to stay late. And we try our best to avoid situations where weekend work is required; for example, we don’t schedule meetings with big deliverables for Monday mornings. It’s important for our junior team to have a sense of separation between work and life.
Mannon: A couple of years ago, I noticed that I was getting a lot of email messages on weekends from employees. And I would respond pretty immediately. For the most part, we've stopped that. I told everyone that we were going to limit weekend email exchanges and most weekend travel. And I think that's a good choice. It's so easy to get into an email conversation back-and-forth and lose a couple of hours on a Saturday morning when you should be enjoying a farmer's market!
Bauer: Time is the most valuable commodity in life—it is the one thing you cannot buy more of. So we don’t waste time, and instead focus on what really matters. We really scrutinize our days and max out every hour, minute and second to focus on the most important outputs. Regardless of the time of year, we ask employees to plan and structure every one of their tasks to ensure it is time-maximizing. If it’s not a priority, we outsource it.
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