In her new book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow details her years-long research project with the Boston Consulting Group, an attempt to improve the work-life balance at the hard-driving firm with incremental but meaningful changes in attitude and behavior. It was a worthy goal, given that by most measures, overconnectedness is a real problem in the workplace.
By all accounts — Perlow’s, the firm’s, even clients’ — the experiment was a success. And not just because the professor scored a book deal from it: she outlines a plan that any organization can implement, which has the advantage of both simplicity and acronymability. She calls it PTO — Predictable Time Off — and it’s almost sure to pop up soon at a staff-building meeting or HR conference near you.
In the meantime, here are Seven Lessons You Won’t Learn in School About … Breaking the 24/7 Work Habit. (Interview edited and condensed by Gary Belsky.)
1. We’re becoming a nation of success addicts. “People are often labeled as workaholics, but we’ve come to think of them as ‘successaholics.’ Very few hard-driving people want to be answering e-mails in the middle of the night. What they want is to be perceived as being available and responsive.”
2. Even well-meaning firms can burn out employees. “BCG had lots of work-life policies and programs before we entered the picture. But when we first spent time with the company, we found they were losing many of their best people, and a lot of it had to do with being too connected with work and with a lack of control over the schedules and unpredictability in their lives in general. We came to recognize that at the source of this problem is what we call the cycle of responsiveness.”
“If you work in a culture where being ‘on’ is valued, you feel pressure to be available. So you adapt. Then, because you’re more available, clients and colleagues naturally make more requests of you. That leads to more pressure to be available, so you adapt again. It’s a vicious cycle. By always being connected to work you’re reinforcing, even amplifying, the pressures that cause you to be available in the first place. Most of the people we surveyed reported spending 20 to 25 hours a week monitoring their work while not actually working.”
3. Everybody needs predictable time off. “In many industries and at many companies, even when people aren’t working, they’re still on: catching up on reading, preparing presentations, checking and responding to e-mails. People check e-mails constantly: at night before they go to bed, soon after they wake up, on weekends. When we first started doing our research, we asked people two questions: How easy is it for you to make a plan for a Wednesday night? And, Would you be interested in working 80% of the time for 80% of your pay, if there was no stigma attached? It became clear that making personal plans was extremely difficult, and people — younger and older, married and single, with young children and not, men and women — were working so much that they would happily give up money if they knew they were gaining more control over their time.”
4. The business world should take a cue from the medical profession. “Doctors have call schedules. They are on, on-call and off. In the business world, we are only on or on-call. We don’t have off. And yet doctors are the ones saving lives, not us.”
5. Looking for big changes? Take small steps. “The magic, if you will, of PTO is that it’s very achievable if a team is committed. First, team members have to agree on a specific unit of time each week that everyone can turn off. Not at the same time, obviously, since team members have to cover for each other. In our first experiment, it was one night a week. But whatever the goal, it has to be valued by the team, as a group. It has to be small but doable. And it has to be concrete and measurable.”
“Second, the team needs to meet weekly to discuss the challenges and successes they’re facing as they try to achieve the goal. These meetings are crucial for PTO to work, but they offer much more. They’re a regular forum for productive conversations about work, conversations that empower people to speak up. In theory, people are speaking up about process, which allows the team to meet the time-off goal. But really they’re speaking about all aspects of the work experience.”
“Finally, the team’s leaders — bosses, managers — have to show support for the project and for team members’ efforts. That’s not just about allowing colleagues to speak up and to use their time off. It’s also about doing the same themselves.”
6. Schedule predictablity is contagious … “We started with one team of six consultants at BCG, and that eventually led to office-wide change. Four years after we conducted our first experiment, 86% of the consulting staff in Boston was on teams engaged in PTO projects. And the changes in culture were extremely positive: 72% of people in PTO experiments said they were satisfied with their job vs. 49% of their colleagues who were not doing PTO; 54% of people were satisfied with their work-life balance vs. 38%; and 51% said they were excited to work in the morning, compared with 27% of those not using PTO.”
7. … and good for clients too. “There was a shared sense within BCG that PTO was having no negative effects on clients and in many cases was having profound, positive effects because of the improvements made to the work process itself. To confirm, I interviewed the clients myself. Most didn’t even realize BCG was engaged in the process. Upon learning, people were pleasantly surprised that nothing had dropped through the cracks. There was an appreciation for the fact that people were getting their time off while still meeting the client’s expectations. Few of us want the people we hire to be miserable. There was a sense that by having to cover for each other in each other’s absence, the client was getting more minds focused collaboratively on their problems.”