With the summer holidays fast approaching, SBT considers the challenges that school holidays pose to small businesses and business owners.

It’s that time of year again where the excitement builds and school children gear up for the end of the summer term, humming the refrain of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out over and over. It’s a great time for the kids, the majority of which have six glorious weeks of freedom away from school, and quite possibly a holiday abroad with family or friends to look forward to as well. However, this sense of excitement is less likely to be shared by many business owners and professionals who are unable to run their businesses as they would like to due to the necessity of looking after children. While many parents would no doubt relish the opportunity to spend the duration of the holidays with their offspring, for the vast majority this simply isn’t possible.

There are some options, such as summer schools, clubs and camps but places are limited and they may not always be within easy reach. There are also childminders of course but this can be an expensive option that’s simply not viable for many. None of these options are ideal, even not considering the cost or distance factors. So for those of whom would rather have a less regimented 6 weeks off for their kids, the summer holidays can create a very large, very long headache in terms of continuing to run a business.

dreamstime_m_40727965A work/life study conducted towards the end of last year by insurance broker, Simply Business revealed a fifth of small business owners couldn’t afford to take a single day off work last summer. A further 30% were only able to have a summer holiday if they stayed at home or within the UK, so that they may keep tabs on their business. And with 72% of those surveyed being parents, this meant that the school holidays didn’t result in traditional family summer breaks for 750,000 small business owners. The study also found that, regardless of the statutory right to 20 days holiday each year, many self-employed workers took nowhere near that amount of time off, with a quarter of those surveyed admitting to taking less than 10 days annual leave. This was even when accounting for bank holidays. In spite of all this however, two thirds of those surveyed said that they were happy with their work/life balance.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Whilst running your own business may well have its work/life downsides, the study findings also revealed that almost half of micro-business owners benefit from fixing their own hours to make it work around family life. Additionally, in this era of ever-improving mobile technology, cloud sharing systems and every-present 3G or WiFi, small business owners are able to access work at any time – meaning that they are more able to fit their work around caring for their children. According to the survey, the majority of small business owners agreed that this kind of technology has been a help in balancing their work and life commitments.

Another survey from last year, this time commissioned by Direct Line for Business, found that home-based businesses were set to lose out on £658 million during the summer holidays, with owners in the South East losing out on nearly £120 million: the most out of any UK region. 60% of the 844,000 home business owners in the UK with dependent children said they planned to take time out of their business to spend time with and look after their children during the summer holidays. The home business owners surveyed said they would, on average, be putting in an extra four hours of working time every day, equating to 20 hours per working week, to make up for the time they take away from the business.

There’s a silver lining to this survey though. Despite the financial and time implications for home businesses, the research revealed that 30% of parents believed that through seeing them at work, their children had the opportunity to learn entrepreneurial skills, while 27% felt that it helped children learn the value of work. In addition, almost a third of parents felt that having their children at home during the holidays gave them a reason to work hard and succeed, while more than a quarter received moral support from their kids. A surprising 10% of home business operators even felt that they are more productive when their children are at home for the summer instead of at school.

Another issue that affects the small business owner is that requests for annual leave reach a peak during holiday periods – especially summer. This introduces another situation that needs to be carefully managed; maintaining the delicate balance of productivity and employee satisfaction. Plus, the health and legal implications of giving entitled, statutory holiday time. Needless to say, maintaining a good level of business performance can be difficult with staff shortages, especially when key skill members or managers are absent.

Clearly, it is not always possible for an employer to grant every leave request during popular holiday periods without adversely affecting their business – they are not obliged to either.

Since 2002, employees with children under the age of 17 have had the right under the Employment Act to make a request for flexible working and for it to be formally considered by an employer. While it’s not necessarily the solution to solve everyone’s problems, there’s no doubt that flexible working presents benefits to employers as well as employees. Employers have found that with greater flexibility comes improved staff relations, motivation, loyalty and consequently, staff retention. It can improve recruitment too. In a speech delivered on the business benefits of flexible working, MP Jenny Willott suggested that many workers nowadays, especially new graduates, have higher expectations and see flexible working as the norm rather than the exception. She went on to say: “I think this trend will only continue. So I think employers have begun to respond to that by offering flexible working as another way of attracting the best staff. It is one part of the employment offer, like pay.”

father-656734In June 2014, the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees that had been working for a company for a minimum of 26 weeks. This move was apparently aimed at creating a cultural shift towards more modern workplaces where working flexibly is the standard. However, this move also raised some concerns. With the right to request flexible working extended to all employees, it also meant that all requests would have to be dealt with fairly, meaning preferential treatment could not be given to those with children – arguably the people that need it most. As a consequence this may very well create discontent among a workforce rather than help prevent it. Speaking to the BBC, Federation of Small Businesses Chairman John Allen said: “Where requests are declined, our experience shows ‘the right to request’ can introduce an unwelcome negative dynamic into the workplace. That ‘negative dynamic’ could be exacerbated when an employer is faced with multiple, conflicting requests.”

In addition, a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) in 2012 found that the vast majority of employers, both large and small, already offered flexible working through an informal process, so having formalised it simply wasted time and increased costs for those companies – something which would be especially unhelpful to smaller businesses.

Flexible working has certainly gone some way to addressing the issue and when combined with a clear, fair and consistent holiday policy, presents perhaps the most effective means of making sure that everyone benefits.

In spite of the challenges, it appears that parents and businesses are doing what is necessary to maintain the juggling act, and the introduction of flexible working has certainly helped to nurture a better balance work/life balance for many.