Skip navigation
2013

If you are like most entrepreneurs, you went into business for yourself for at least one of the following reasons:

  • You wanted a better work situation
  • You wanted to be your own boss

    Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

  • You wanted more freedom and free time
  • You wanted more creativity at work
  • All of the above

 

One of the little known facts of small business life is while most of the above certainly is possible, getting more freedom and free time is pretty difficult.

 

When you worked for someone else, getting a week or two off a year was easy and you didn’t worry too much about the complications of your time away. But when you are an entrepreneur, taking time off can have bigger ramifications (or at least it can feel that way). While it is common for a small business owner to steal an extra few days off here and there, the two-week stay in Hawaii often goes by the wayside.

 

 

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss

 

 

The thing is we all need time off to recharge our batteries— and the people who know this best are our counterparts over in Europe. In France, people are guaranteed at least five weeks of paid vacation time a year. While that is not how it works here in the U.S., with warmer weather around the corner it would behoove you to re-examine your vacation policies for both yourself and your employees, so that everyone gets some much-needed time away.

 

Let’s take a closer look at each approach:

 

Vacation plans for yourself: If you’re your own boss, be a good one. Give yourself a break. Even better, give yourself a long break— you deserve it. Here’s how:

 

 

1. Plan ahead. This means:

  • Saving enough money so you can get away without financial stress;
  • Telling clients and customers that you will be gone and for how long;
  • Making a list of essential things that still need to happen while you’re away.


2. Hand off your duties to an employee, a temp or a virtual assistant: Getting away requires having someone around who can keep everything running without you. No, they cannot do everything you do, but you just might be surprised how much they can do with proper training and good communication. To make sure things are running smoothly, consider having a chat every few days over the phone.


3. Get more done early: Get as much extra work done as you can before you go. By getting ahead, you make getting away much easier.


4. Schedule a time buffer when you get back: Here’s another trick to lessen the stress upon your return. Don’t tell everyone you will be back in the office Monday, tell them Wednesday. Then, when you start working again on Monday you can have a few days of uninterrupted time to catch up.


Vacation plans for your staff: Are there any sorts of leave policies that you can adopt that will not only make your employees happy, but will make your workplace exceptional?

 

You bet.

 

Most small businesses have basic time-off policies where employees get X number of sick days, and X number of vacation, holiday and personal days off per year, with the vacation days usually increasing as the years go by. On average, full-time employees in the U.S. usually get about 17 or 18 days off per year (nothing like Europe!), while professional, long-term employees could receive up to 30 days or more.

 

Why not consider adopting a new trend for employee time off, one that I am seeing more and more of these days. Many employers are pooling all of their employees’ time-off days intapril 7 pull quote.pngo a day-off “bank”. Employees may get, for instance, 150 total hours off per year (about 19 work days). The “bank” would add all personal days off, time off for holidays, time for vacation and sick days together. But instead of divvying them up into pre-defined categories, it is up to the employee to take off the days he or she wants, when he or she wants them (within the needs of the business, of course).

 

 

The main benefit of this plan is that it allows employees to use their time as they see fit. If they want to take time off for Ramadan or Yom Kippur, or take a personal day to take care of a few appointments, that’s their choice, and they don't have to call in sick or make up an excuse. In fact, they can use the day-off bank for vacation, personal time, sick days or whatever they choose. Some employers even allow employees who bank more than say, 80 hours, to redeem the excess hours by exchanging them for cash or extra time off.

 

This sort of creative time-off program is one of the intangible benefits that separate great small businesses from the pack, and, maybe best of all, it gives employees a greater variety of options to organize their own time off.

 

Have you recently updated your time-off policy? Share your story below.


About Steve Strauss

 

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

EmployerHealth_Body.jpgby Jen Hickey.

 

Despite all the discussion surrounding the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) (known by some as ObamaCare) as employer health mandate, there remains some confusion about who will be affected. A recent survey found that one-third of small business owners believed they would be required to provide health insurance for their employees in 2014, while another third wasn’t sure. It pays to know the details of this law, though.

 

According to the ACA, small business owners who have no employees will have to purchase health insurance for themselves to avoid paying a penalty. There is, as the Wall Street Journal notes, a “hardship exemption” for sole proprietors if the annual insurance premium costs will be more than eight percent of their household income. Though the rules and potential costs associated with this health care law can seem daunting, the federal government has begun to clarify these issues with new regulations. These new rules explain purchasing and coverage guidelines for the health care market as well as define essential health benefits and wellness requirements.

 

[Note: All data in this article is accurate at the time of publication, but because government regulations are often changed and frequently updated, any small business owner should confirm the latest rules regarding the ACA by visiting hhs.gov and irs.gov, and seek professional guidance before making any major changes regarding health insurance.]

 

Beginning in 2014, businesses with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) must offer health coverage that’s “affordable” and meets “minimum value.” (These two terms are defined as a) having a premium that does not exceed 9.5 percent of income and b) covering 60 percent of actuarial value, or the amount of expected health care expenses.) The annual penalty for not complying is $2,000 per employee not covered after the first 30 FTEs. According to the ACA, full-time workers are now defined as employees who work 30 hours or more a week (130 hours per month). While businesses are not required to offer coverage to part-time employees, part-time workers’ hours will still be used to determine whether they’re subject to the mandate. For example, three part-time employees that work 10 hours per week for a total of 30 hours will now equal one FTE.

 

Businesses with less than 50 FTE workers are not subject to the employer mandate, and those with fewer than 25 FTEs that also provide health coverage may even be eligible for certain tax credits. (The average annual wage of workers would have to be less than $50,000.) Through 2013, small businesses that pay at least half the cost of health premiums for each FTE can receive a credit for up to 35 percent of their contribution toward their employees’ coverage. And starting in 2015, when the new state and federally run “health exchanges” fully launch, small businesses that purchase coverage through these platforms can receive a tax credit for two years of up to 50 percent of their contribution.

 

Lenny Verkhoglaz, CEO and co-owner of Executive Care, a Hackensack, New Jersey-based home health care company, has considered offering insurance to his employees in the past. But he could never meet the 75-percent-participation rule many group healthcare plans demanded. Since many of Verkhoglaz’s employees are documented immigrants with family roots in other countries, he says, they prefer to send home the extra cash that they might instead use to pay health insurance premiums. What’s more, many of his workers are covered by their spouses or through New Jersey’s state-sponsored health insurance plan. And to complicate matters, determining whether his employees are full or part time can be a fluid calculation, since their status often depends on the nature of the assignment and length of time between clients.

 

“This is not a 9-to-5 job,” explains Verkhoglaz. “An aide may be servicing a client for 40 hours a week, and then that client passes away and they may be working few or no hours until another case comes along.” However, Verkhoglaz still believes he will be subject to the employer mandate, because of the use of part-time employees to calculate FTEs.

 

Even the insurance brokers Verkhoglaz has spoken with still seem to be grappling with how the mandate will affect businesses like his, with regulations still being issued on how certain industries will be classified. Despite the uncertainty, Verkhoglaz, who co-founded his company 10 years ago, recently franchised his business. “I haven’t changed my growth plans even though I’m not sure how my business will be affected,” he says. In the meantime, Verkhoglaz continues to reach out to home care associations and read industry publications for guidance. “It’s not clear if there will be differences in how these exchanges run from state to state,” he notes.

 

Because the annual cost of non-compliance is far less than the cost of typical health care premiums, Craig B. Garner, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who teaches a course on the ACA, says some business owners may opt to pay the penalty and shift their employees onto the new state health exchanges. “There’s more to benefits than just cost,” cautions Garner. “Often it’s the difference when it comes to recruiting and retention.” He points out that the exchanges are expected to function much like an online travel booking site. There, business will be able to shop various plans that offer different levels of coverage, ranging from bronze (which cover the minimum 60% of actuarial value) to platinum (which provides up to 90% of coverage).

 

EmployerHealth_PQ.jpgGarner does not believe the penalties will have much of a financial impact on those businesses already offering a health plan. Jim Edholm, owner and president of insurance brokerage firm Business Benefits Insurance in Andover, Massachusetts says dropping existing health coverage could prove more costly in the long run. “Your employees will be looking for a bump up in pay to make up for that lost benefit plus the amount that’s lost to payroll taxes,” he points out. “You’ll end up paying much more in the end.”

 

The ACA also calls for all non-grandfathered individual and small-group market insurance plans to cover 10 health benefits deemed “essential.” These include services most would expect to be covered, such as ambulatory care, emergency room visits, hospitalization, maternity, newborn, and pediatric care, prescriptions, and laboratory services. It also will include care for mental health and substance abuse and preventive and wellness services. “This prevents those mini-med plans with all kinds of limitations and maximums from calling themselves a health plan,” notes Edholm. Where it gets murky is coverage for mental health, which is not well defined and varies from state to state. “Some states, like Massachusetts deem biologically-based conditions, such as depression, as mental health disorders,” he explains, “while others like Alaska do not.”  And the federal benchmarks for essential benefits largely leave the definition of required mental health services to the discretion of the states.

 

Also in the ACA and set to take full effect in 2014 are several other changes to current health care regulations. First off, the new law puts an end to annual and lifetime caps on coverage. Second, it establishes penalties for businesses that have healthcare eligibility waiting periods of more than 90 days. Finally, it creates new reporting requirements (sections 1512-1514) for employers of 50 or more FTEs on whether they offer health insurance or not.

 

While Livingston, Montana-based PrintingforLess offers a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) for its 155 full-time employees, CEO Andrew S. Field says he has already seen higher administrative costs. “There’s a lot of disclosure and legalese that now has to be provided to our employees,” Field explains. “We had to bring on another person in human resources to help with the additional paperwork and time spent working with our provider and broker/consultant to make sure we remain compliant.”

 

Until recently, Field had primarily relied on full-time workers. However, he has altered his hiring practices to prepare for expected higher employee costs. “Partly because of ACA and partly because we don’t know what the future holds, we’re far more inclined to invest in technology that may save us on headcount,” Field says. And when they do hire, they’re more likely to bring on part timers, who now represent about 20 percent of the company’s work force.

 

There have also been changes to the individual and small-group insurance market (50 covered employees or less), which have historically been regulated by the states. Unlike large employers, which have a larger pool of employees to spread the risk of catastrophic illness, rates available to smaller employers have traditionally been much higher, since there is a smaller pool to spread that risk. However, the ACA is meant to curtail this practice by setting up health care exchanges that create more competition for that market and establish more uniform guidelines of how insurers can determine expected costs and, thus, price premiums.

 

Edholm believes many smaller businesses may opt for a self-insured health plan, which is exempt from costs and taxes related the ACA. One of these exemptions involves the 80/20 rule, which requires health insurers to spend at least 80 percent of collected premiums on medical costs. Under a self-insurance plan, an employer assumes the risks of all claims, whereas in a fully insured plan the employer pays a fixed rate regardless of whether the costs are incurred or not. As a recent National Association of Insurance Commissioners study points out, when self-funding, it’s often necessary for a small employer to purchase a secondary, stop-loss policy to protect against the risk of large expensive claims that can result from serious illnesses. However, stop-loss providers require detailed information about the health and demographics of your employees, which will be used to establish the deductible. And such cost savings largely depend on the relative health and age of your employees.

 

[Note: All data in this article is accurate at the time of publication, but because government regulations are often changed and frequently updated, any small business owner should confirm the latest rules regarding the ACA by visiting hhs.gov and irs.gov, and seek professional guidance before making any major changes regarding health insurance.]

Telecommuting_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

When Marissa Mayer, the recently-installed CEO of Yahoo! rescinded the company's permissive telecommuting policy and required employees to work on-site, it sent ripples throughout the business world. Some critics of her decision say that it unfairly undermines the work-life balance of hard-working households. Supporters argue that regular face-to-face interaction fosters creativity.

 

The jury is still out, but one thing is clear: Mayer's decision sparked a conversation about the gains and losses of a telecommuting arrangement. We checked in with three small business owners to get their perspectives on this heated topic.

 

Clearly define expectations

To begin with, some people mistakenly conflate flextime and telecommuting. "The umbrella term is flexible work arrangements," says Pat Katepoo, founder of WorkOptions. These arrangements cover a variety of situations, including a compressed work-week, part-time schedules, job sharing—and telecommuting. The flexibility lets you "change when you work and how you work," she says. "Telecommuting is a change in where the work is done, [such as] at home, the coffee shop, or a library."

 

Katepoo says that telecommuting provides tangible benefits to both sides in the relationship. "For employers, the big gains are in productivity, retention, and reduced absenteeism, since [bad weather] or a sniffle won't stop [telecommuters] from doing work that day," she explains. "Employees save time and get more control over their work. Their perception of stress is less and they can actually do more work." Studies and surveys support Katepoo's findings.

 

And the drawbacks? Managers who are used to having workers in the office at their desks may have a hard time keeping tabs on their telecommuting staff. For the latter, being isolated from their fellow workers or lacking the self-discipline necessary to focus on work by themselves can seriously disrupt the new routine.

 

For a business that is trying telecommuting for the first time, there are some common issues that need to be addressed in advance to make the transition smoother, including setting a schedule, establishing work goals, and building a communication plan. For example, a telecommuter could work remotely on Tuesdays and Thursdays, accomplish an agreed-upon set of tasks, and report to their supervisor at the end of the day by email. Another communication option is Google Hangouts, which lets up to 10 people have an online video conversation.

 

Managing remote workers sometimes requires a special set of skills, so Katepoo recommends the tools and resources found at When Work Works and the Society For Human Resource Management. Establishing a telecommuting relationship takes patience and willingness. "I do suggest a minimum trial period of at least three months and up to six months," Katepoo says. "And the trial period should not be seeing if [telecommuting] works out. It should be working out the issues that surface [in order to make it a viable working arrangement]."

 

Telecommuting_PQ.jpgBe accountable

For companies that allow telecommuting, it's not uncommon for workers to split their time between the office and a remote location. However, some business owners have done away with a central office entirely and have every member of the team work on their own remotely.

 

Case in point: The Content Factory, a Pittsburgh-based public relations and social media marketing agency. Founded in 2010, it has a staff of about eight made up of contractors and full timers, as well as a fluctuating number of part-time service providers.

 

"We thought we were going to go the employee route, but when we outlined the job responsibilities and saw that it was very much project-based, we started changing the way we looked at how we were going to run our business," says Kari DePhillips, one of the co-owners. "We haven't really needed an office. You save so much time by working from home."

 

One of the early lessons DePhillips learned was to be very clear about the deliverables of each project and when they were due. For example, the agency is contractually obligated to produce a specific number of social media updates every day for their clients. Team members are held accountable for making sure the work gets done on time and that the quality of the copy is up to standards. "You can't have lazy people working from home," DePhillips says. "Some people can't handle the freedom. The big red flag is almost always [whether] deadlines are met."

 

DePhillips says that the majority of her core team is in Pittsburgh, but she has people working for her across the country. You might think that could lead to a breakdown in communication, but just the opposite appears to be true, she says. Her team stays in touch through Skype and e-chats and has regularly scheduled meetings—all managed virtually. "On the whole, I've been very impressed with the quality of the work that our team turns out remotely," DePhillips says.

 

Collaborate in person

As the owner of The Marks Group, a Pennsylvania-based company that sells software applications, Gene Marks closed down his physical offices eight years ago. Today, he and his 10 employees all work from home. Yet he also approves of Marissa Mayer's controversial decision to end the practice of telecommuting.

 

"There is something potentially significant to be gained from having your people around in the right work space and talking to each other, exchanging ideas, and discussing clients," Marks says. "All the collaboration technology we use—such as Basecamp and Dropbox—have great value, but sometimes I think we all take things too far."

 

By way of example, Marks explains that he has three people in his company each working on a Microsoft Dynamic project for three different clients—yet none of them are really talking to each other. "But if they were in an office working together, it's quite possible [they could suggest ideas] which might be more productive and create more revenue and more value."

 

That said, Marks has no plans to re-open a central office. Both he and his team members are almost always out on the road visiting clients or developing new business opportunities. "Telecommuting is not the answer for everybody," he says. "It worked for my company because [my team] was already used to doing it and being on the road. But I think requiring somebody to come into the office at least once or twice a week is a good thing overall."

Filter Article

By tag: