Why Companies Should Force Employees to Unplug

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A study by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow challenges the notion that employees need to be always available to do a good job. Perlow’s findings, outlined in a recent article in Harvard Business Review, concerned teams of consultants at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) — a company known for its hard-driving, ambitious and career-focused workforce. In one experiment, which involved a team working on a project for a new client, Perlow required everyone in the group to take one full day off a week. In a second experiment, which involved a team working on a post-merger restructuring project, she mandated that each consultant take one planned evening off a week, during which the employee could not work after 6 p.m., even to check email.

She found that participants who had regular downtime reported greater satisfaction with their jobs, increased likelihood that they could envision a long-term career at the firm and better work/life balance compared with BCG employees not taking part in the experiments. Participants’ work benefited, too. The experiments resulted in more open communication among team members, which sparked new efficiencies with how the team delivered projects. In addition, Perlow found that these kinds of initiatives help people learn better by forcing team members to more deeply understand each others’ jobs.

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“When you can just call or email the expert anytime anywhere, other people don’t learn,” notes Wharton’s Rothbard, who reviewed Perlow’s forthcoming book on the subject, Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work. “Other team members don’t develop. They don’t gain new skills. They don’t create institutional team knowledge.”

Taking time away from work and our digital devices improves our health, our happiness and our productivity. But who is responsible for making sure we take that time off?

In the era of virtual offices and blurred boundaries between work and home, Craig Chappelow, global portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership, a consulting firm based in Greensboro, N.C., says it is the responsibility of individual leaders “to model the kinds of behaviors they expect to see cascade down through” the organization.

“It’s the boss who should be saying: ‘We’re better if we are not working all weekend long.’ Companies should say: ‘If we give people their weekends, we get their weekdays,’” he says. “Part of the solution is figuring out how you approach work, and how you approach integrating family. This is where the importance of ground rules — and sticking to them — comes into play. In my family, we have a rule: No BlackBerries until breakfast is over.”

Companies ought to have ground rules, too, he suggests. Indeed, a growing number of businesses are reviewing their policies on how workers manage email, including how many employees are allowed to be copied on a message and how many times an email may be sent back and forth. Some companies are also monitoring the use of smartphones by employees during non-work hours.

“The fact is, work and personal life are very much intertwined, and we have to figure out [how] those two things [can] coexist in a way that doesn’t stress us out,” Chappelow notes. “People are going to have to learn new coping behaviors for this technology so they don’t burn out. There is also a saturation point; there are only so many hours in the day.”

Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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