It was a relaxing girls’ weekend in Macon, Ga., for Jenni Bastone, her mother, and her sister. At least, that was the plan. The co-owner of Le Bazar Parisien, a fashion company in France, cut an outing short to sign off on a package of proofs that had been overnighted, ASAP. While Bastone had pangs of guilt about putting off her mother and sister, especially considering their illness, they gamely grinned through the distraction. “I am very lucky that I have an understanding family,” she says. Not everyone can count their blessings. One boss overworked himself into divorce proceedings. When he took vacations, he would have no idea where he was headed until he met his family at the departure gate, then made himself so available to his staff, they didn’t realize he was on vacation. For him and many others, work is like a child that needs to be checked in on during an absence — even when that absence happens to be time off with a spouse and living, breathing children. But there is a way to negotiate with the office and the family so that everyone’s needs are being met. “Business owners are the most overworked people in America,” says Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live . “They need to see that it’s not a badge of courage, but a problem. And they should realize that free time is an engine for innovation and creativity.”
They also need to trust the people they’ve hired. “Staff will love it. They will be more productive with you out of their hair,” Robinson says. If you must, he suggests checking in at the end of the day, but “If you are too chicken to go whole hog, go somewhere where there is no cellular service” (see sidebar, “Let’s Get Lost”).
Matt DuPree, a Denver portfolio manager and founder of Hilltop Investments, does just that by decamping to the desert. Still, he takes a mere five days off every two years, likening taking vacation to shutting down the George Washington Bridge. “If the bridge got tired and closed, the traffic wouldn’t go away, it would get worse. When I go offline, the work doesn’t go offline. I have to deal with it when I get back.” The best way to combat this, he says, is by telling clients well in advance when he won’t be available, and insisting that they not bother him. Otherwise, “I regret having gone on vacation.”
To make sure your family doesn’t regret having brought you along, establish how much time you plan to devote to work matters, says psychologist Peter Fraenkel, director of the Center for Time, Work and the Family at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. “Stick to it — there’s nothing more annoying than someone who says, ‘I just need another ten minutes,’ and it turns into two hours. Better at the outset to say, ‘I have to spend the morning doing this, then I will be free and clear. We’ll get back together for lunch and go on with the rest of the day.’ This reduces the degree to which family members are tethered by time to the working parent.” You can also prepare for the break by finishing important tasks before the trip if possible or conducting business early morning or late at night once you’re on it. If your multitasking instinct tempts you to go to the pool area and review the budget while the kids splash around in the shallow end, everyone loses: You’re apt to be less productive, and they may feel like second fiddles.
Of course, what the family doesn’t know won’t hurt them. On a recent trip to Siena, Italy, Axiom Legal founder and CFO Alec Guettel would offer to run out to buy his wife a bottle of Pellegrino — then slink off to a telephone center, awaiting his turn among hygiene-challenged backpackers, so he could call the office back in New York.