Taking time off is critically important, but it’s also a big challenge for fast-moving startups. Here’s how we make it work…
Over two weeks in July, Groove signed up just over 40 new customers.
Our monthly revenue increased by about $1800.
We published two blog posts that each got shared just over 1,000 times.
It was a pretty standard two weeks, as far as Groove is concerned, except for one detail: I put in about an hour of work, in total, over those two weeks. And most of that hour was spent responding to blog comments.
And that’s because I was on vacation, living the good life in Hawaii for my honeymoon.
One thing I notice in a lot of conversations with startup friends (especially founders) is that it’s impossible to talk about vacation time without talking about the guilt that many of us feel when we think about taking time off.
What about all of the work that still needs to get done?
What about my team members who are going to be stuck without me?
In a startup, every second counts. Am I stealing from the company by going on vacation?
I’m not writing this post to brag about my own trip (though the waves at Shipwrecks beach did make for some pretty epic surfing), but to highlight just how important it is for the business* that everyone *on the team takes time off from work, and how we make it work at Groove.
The Value of Shutting Off, and the Cost of Always Being on
Our team takes burnout seriously.
We have to, since the last time we accidentally slipped into a routine of running ourselves in the ground, our productivity crashed and we risked the future of the company.
We’ve long believed in the value of taking time away.
Personally, every time I get back from vacation, I’m rested, rejuvenated, and really excited to get back to work.
And when I’m overworked, I feel stressed, tired and my decision-making suffers.
But it’s not just anecdotal.
Ernst & Young did a study that found that for every 10 additional hours of vacation time their employees took, their performance ratings from supervisors improved by 8 percent.
At the same time, overworking without breaks takes a huge toll on our health, making us sick in all kinds of ways.
And it hurts companies, too. One study found that employees’ lack of sleep — a curse I fall victim to every time we start to work too much — cost companies more than $63 billion in productivity each year.
Takeaway: There’s no doubt about it: the dangers of not taking time off from work massively outweigh the (diminishing) benefits of putting in those extra two weeks every year. It’s hard to remember to take time off, especially at startups, but it’s also critical to your success as a business.
How we make it work as a small remote team
We all take time off from work — we have to — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with challenges.
The toughest thing about making vacations work in a small team is that we don’t have a lot of overlap in our roles; we’re all critical.
If our only designer leaves for a week, well, nothing is getting designed that week. We can’t simply step into each other’s shoes.
There are three things that we’ve found work best to ensure that vacations don’t end up bringing the company to a halt:
1) Building Vacation Time Into Our Roadmap
Realistic roadmapping is one of the biggest struggles for almost any startup.
Until your team has been working together for quite some time, almost everything takes longer than you think it will. And that’s with everyone working at full productivity.
But when an employee goes on vacation — or even has a sick day — things can get bad, fast.
One of the most important resource planning lessons we’ve learned is to budget liberally for vacation time and sick days, so that they never come as a surprise.
Our weekly project plans look less ambitious than they did a year ago, but we hit our milestones far more consistently.
Takeaway: Make sure that you’re accounting for time off in your project planning. It’ll avoid painful stalls and missed milestones when team members get sick or go on vacation.
2) Frontloading The Work
Another critical consideration: don’t just budget for less work to get done when a team member is gone.
You also need to budget for less work the week before a vacation, as the employee will need to spend time doing work that minimizes the number of tasks that get pushed onto teammates.
Take this blog, for example: generally, after a post is written, I’ll work with our designer to build the images and code the post. Then I’ll write the email that gets sent to our subscribers, load that into Campaign Monitor and queue it for sending.
Before I left, I spent extra time doing those tasks (and scheduling the email sends) so that nobody else would have to. In fact, just about the only thing that nobody else can do — answer my emails and comments — was all that was left to do during the time I was away, and that was what I spent that hour of work doing.
With the work frontloaded and the right systems in place, the company still ran with minimal disruption to everyone else’s workflow.
Takeaway: Think about what needs to be done while you’re away, and do your best to minimize what gets left to your teammates. By doing the extra work up front, you let the company run as seamlessly as possible without you.
3) Hiring the Right People
I’ve talked a number of times about how important hiring the right people is, especially for a remote team.
When it comes to handling workload and time off, having the right team is critical.
As a remote team, we can’t babysit each other. So just as important as it is to hire people who can “be their own CEO” and get their work done, it’s also important to hire people who know how to manage their workload without getting overworked, and who already deeply understand the benefits (for the whole team) of taking time off.
If someone on the team can’t handle the combination of remote autonomy and startup craziness, they’ll burn out fast. Burnouts lead to lost productivity and stalled progress, and we all know where that leads.
Having the team on the same page with regard to vacation keeps us all accountable, too.
When I made the mistake of checking in less than an hour after my vacation started (I’m only human), I was called out for it:
It’s a funny example, but an important point: good teams know how valuable it is for everyone to take the time to recharge.
Takeaway: Hiring the right people is important for so many reasons, but keeping your team sane and healthy is a big one. Make sure new hires know how valuable time off is, and how to manage their workload to ensure that they don’t burn out.
How To Apply This To Your Business
It can be easy to feel like taking a vacation is robbing your team, and your business, of valuable time and effort.
But in fact, the opposite is true: by not taking time off, you’re stealing productivity and creativity that could be moving the business forward.
Vacation doesn’t have to mean a trip to Hawaii; it could be a camping trip, a week in another city, or even time spent at home.
The only necessity is that you turn off, tune out and step away from your work.