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Busy professionals keeping high-tech tools close at hand

Has technology made getting away for a vacation or even separating work from personal life impossible? BlackBerrys, laptops, WiFi hotspots, cell phones with unlimited calling plans, voicemail and e-mail are wonderful tools. But it seems that there is intense pressure in nearly every kind of business to always be available, always connected.

Because of all the high-tech tools that make it easy to be connected no matter where you are, it can be easy to get overloaded. Particularly when it is time for a vacation, it is a good idea to plan ahead so business interruptions can be minimal.

Technology is wonderful and allows a person to stay connected with their work while away from work.

“However, staying connected may defeat the purpose of vacation,” said retired counselor Archie King. “Americans have less vacation time and work more hours than the workers of the other industrialized nations of the world. True vacations allow a person to rest, regenerate and become more effective when returning to their work. A lack of vacation time skews our perception of work itself.”

King said in our competitive world, a person may find it stressful not to work on his/her laptop, check e-mail, call the office or check voice-mail while vacationing. The person who works during vacation may be insecure about his/her role and fearful of not continuing to work while on vacation, or they may also have an exaggerated opinion of their value and think that the business or company can not function without them.

He recommends, “I am on vacation” should mean, “Don’t contact me unless there is an emergency, nor will I be conducting business while on vacation.”

“A working vacation is an oxymoron,” King said. “It is not a vacation. It is merely continuing to work without physically reporting to the office.”

Just because we have it…

“Just because we have the technology that allows us to be available 24 hours per day, seven days a week, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best thing for the company or the employee,” said Michelle Daniels, staffing division director for the CPI Group, Columbus. “Employees have a right to expect time off reasonably. There needs to be a relationship between the employee and the company so that the company only contacts the employee on vacation in an emergency, and so that the employee is willing to help if they are in a bind.”

Vacation planning needs to start in advance. Specific duties need to be reassigned as much as possible so it isn’t necessary to call someone who may be on the beach or in the mountains.

“What we like to do is have the person who is going to be out make a list of the duties to be handled during their absence, reassigning those duties to different people in the office,” Daniels said. “The degree the person has to be available during vacation depends on their position and level of responsibility. The higher the level of responsibility, the greater the need for that person to be available in case of emergency.”

She suggests staff members on vacation check e-mail once a day, if possible, and also check voice mail at scheduled times, as well. But taking the cell phone with you to be available 24-7 is not advised.

“People need time away from the office to rejuvenate, come back fresh and have a new mindset when they come back to work,” Daniels said. “They need to feel like they have had a vacation and been able to relax. A lot of that is not having a laptop on your hip all the time you are out or a cell phone ringing through out the day.”

Changing nature of work

Monique Sneed, human resources director, Mississippi Valley State University, said the nature of jobs has changed over the last 20 years.

“Very few office or administrative-type employees can vacation without being concerned about whether their presence is needed at work,” Sneed said. “Due to all of the technology that is at the disposal of today’s office place, it is much easier to be accessible even when the worker is away. This does place a burden on the employee who deserves a healthy break from the work world.”

She tries not to bother the vacationing employee unless it is absolutely necessary. However, those employees who are critical to the organization’s success must expect that accessibility is a part of the job duty.

“High-level managers should expect the employer to respect their time away from the office, but they should also expect to be contacted in the event of an emergency,” Sneed said. “A smart employee will help their employer establish a contingency plan where emergencies can be handled swiftly and effectively in the event of their absence from work.”

Ron Aldridge, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said most business folks need a definite separation between the business and actual rest, and the family and business at times. Often the biggest problem with maintaining a balance between business and personal lives with self-employed business people is their family is usually part of the business, too.

“You are constantly talking business, sometimes even at the dinner table,” Aldridge said. “Whether on vacation or even at the dinner table, you need to be able to separate the two so each can function to its best and greatest potential by concentrating on each one of them at separate times. There is no doubt the worst thing that can happen is trying to be with your family on vacation, playing with your kids, and you get a business call. The kids don’t understand that. It is an interruption of their business at the time, which is having fun with dad or mom.”

Finding balance

Most aspects of business can wait. Because of the technology available today that makes everyone instantly available, it is important to plan to achieve a balance that keeps people from burning out and neglecting their family and personal life.

“Being available all the time it is a disruption to thought processes and quality time with our family,” he said. “It is important to take time to ensure concentration is on your family, or just resting your mind away from the intricacies of your business, the worries of the financial aspects of life.”

Some jobs make is particularly difficult to get away. For example, economic developers often have many irons in the fire and need to be available if site selectors or prospective new industries need them. Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Foundation of Jones County, rarely finds the time to get away for more than a long weekend. When he does, he is never without his cell phone.

“And, yes, it stays on just in case I’m needed,” Stennett said. “My normal instructions when I’m taking vacation time (usually a Friday for a long weekend or mini-vacation and sometimes a Thursday and Friday) are that I’ll return calls when I return,” Stennett said. “However, there’s always the caveat that if I’m needed, I can be reached by cell phone. Usually, while on vacation I will call the office each day to check my messages just in case there’s something I need to handle from afar.”

He combines out-of-town conferences with vacation when possible, extending he and his wife’s time at the location of the conference to take a couple or three days vacation.

“It’s simpler, more convenient and less time-consuming to combine business with pleasure in instances like that,” Stennett said.

‘Wish’ a key word

Heath Hall, vice president for external affairs and marketing, Mississippi Technology Alliance, said technology has allowed us to stay connected to the office during vacation anytime we wish.

“The key word is ‘wish’,” Hall said. “When someone is on vacation, they have to make a mental note to turn off their BlackBerry and resist the urge to check e-mail using their laptop and the now hotel-standard wireless connection. Our connected world is changing, and the way we vacation is as well — both are heavily driven by technology.”

On the other side, he actually feels more comfortable having his BlackBerry with him on vacation. That is mental insurance that allows someone to take a vacation versus staying in the office to oversee a project.

“You really have to do what works well with your own personality and remember that a vacation is a time to rest and refresh for the challenges that are ahead,” Hall said.

The upside of technology for the small business owner is that it has made it easier to take a vacation, said Doug Gurley, state director of the Mississippi Small Business Development Center network.

“In the past, communication was limited to the land line telephone only, making it almost impossible for the small business owner to leave her business for even a few days,” Gurley said. “Now, you can access and view your accounts, and talk with and view your employees almost instantly, which allows you to keep your finger on the pulse of your business and make changes almost as quickly as if you were there. It is no longer the wave of the future; it is the now.”

The downside is that a large majority of small business owners do not possess these skills and equipment. They reconcile this by saying it costs too much, is too time consuming to learn, and they need to be doing other things when the opposite is true.

“In this day and age, if you do not take advantage of these tools and your competition does…well, you remember what happened to the old adding machines and cash registers when calculators came along,” Gurley said.

Another issue is that technology can make it easier for subordinates to pass decisions on to the “boss” rather than be responsible. “Technology also provides more tools for the over-controlling owner to be involved with decisions more properly made by others,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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