“We are all too familiar with the challenges of the ‘always connected’ age of the smartphone, iPad, Netbook, laptop—or the next big thing that will enable us to be on the golf course, on the beach, on the couch, or even in bed, and still be working. We feel overwhelmed, overworked, always interrupted, lacking time to focus; we also feel exhilarated, challenged, rewarded, and freed from the shackles of the office.”

So writes Leslie Perlow, in the introduction to her book, Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work.  As a result of her research, the Harvard Business School professor shows us how it is possible to disconnect and at the same time become more productive.

As an ethnographer and anthropologist, Perlow has always been interested in “running experiments to create change to make peoples lives better.” With the idea of figuring out if and how today’s workers could make time within the work week to disconnect, she surveyed 2,500 mangers and professionals in high-pressure, demanding jobs and spoke to several hundred directly. She states that most were unhappy with their mix of time spent working, spent accessible but not necessarily working, and spent truly off. However, most agreed that turning off their smartphones, computers, and iPads was wholly unpractical.

When faced with the idea of changing their habits, many quickly pointed to outside demands from clients, customers, or other external forces as the reason they needed to be always connected. Instead, Perlow’s research reveals that the enemy is within. Team members perpetuate and amplify the demands on each other’s time, raising team expectations on availability, and spinning themselves into the over-connected workweeks they then resent. 

Perlow created a series of experiments and engaged The Boston Consulting Group to see if one six-person “case team” could change how they worked together. Each week, each team member would strive to have a predictable night off, followed by a weekly team dialogue around this goal and the work process more generally.

“Their initial response was OK, I suppose we could do that, but not on my team. They certainly weren’t jumping for joy. But finally I found a team that was willing to give it a try.  We agreed that the team’s collective goal would be to take a predictable night off each week. This was a stretch, and it challenged their assumptions that such a thing was even possible,” she says.

The process Perlow calls PTO (predictable time off) results in incremental changes that any team can make if they rally around a collective goal of predictable time off and agree to confer weekly as a team about where they are falling short and what it will take to improve going forward. The combination of the collective goal and structured dialogue unleashes a powerful process where team members feel empowered to continually surface and then work together as a team to address issues – both work and personal.

At first, everyone lamented that there is little that an individual can do to change the situation of being in a high-stress business environment where everyone is “on” all the time. However, with the team on board, it is possible to collectively tackle the problem.  In her book, Perlow explains the purpose of PTO as breaking the cycle of responsiveness (needing to be available 24-7); helping team members work together to change their actions and interactions; reducing the bad intensity and increasing the good intensity; and creating a win-win, to benefit both the team’s work process and team members’ work/life balance.

In addition to meeting weekly to discuss not only what was good and what went wrong, the team also discussed more generally their work process and how employees were feeling; whether they were learning and developing; how they were doing meeting their client deliverables; and whether their way of working was sustainable. “The fact that the teams engaged in a discussion each week helped build trust, understanding, and a deeper commitment to change. It was vital to add this structured dialogue,” she says. 

Obviously a supportive team leader was essential, both to legitimize the weekly conversations and team members taking risks and striving to achieve the collective goals, which, by design, was countercultural and therefore felt risky to pursue.

“It’s really about having a small, doable, collective goal and combining that with structured dialogue. The process takes on a life of it’s own. In the end, it’s about using personal issues as the lever to create the ongoing learning process to benefit both the work and peoples’ lives. Our personal life serves to create the ongoing trigger, to challenge assumptions, and create changes,” explains Perlow. “With trust and openness came the passion to work together and make change. Moreover, changes that started small as a result of the collective goal continued to grow as people felt empowered to raise issues and continue to make changes.”

People became more satisfied with their work-life balance and careers, and the BCG was better able to retain its best employees and recruit new talent. Perhaps most surprising of all, these improvements came not at the expense of the work itself. Instead, BCG teams became even more efficient and effective.  

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“Four years after the Consumer Team embarked on the PTO experiment, 88 percent of BCG’s Boston office consulting staff were engaging in the PTO process on their current teams and 95 percent wanted their next team to be engaged in PTO.  By this point, 72 percent of individuals felt that their colleagues were considerate of their personal lives, compared with 55 percent before the initiative began; 59 percent felt they had sufficient control over their work schedules, compared with 43 percent before the initiative began; and 81 percent derived a sense of personal accomplishment from their work, compared with 71 percent at the start,” Perlow states in her chapter titled “Small Steps, Big Results”.

It was clear that more employees felt that they could safely speak up and express opinions (74 percent versus 58 percent) and collaboration with team members was improved (71 percent versus 39).  Ninety-one percent of those in the experiment also thought their clients were better off versus 83 percent on the consulting staff.

“For me it was not only that the team members actually learned how to ‘turn off’ but that PTO also translated into other areas of their work lives and their work. They worked together to make it possible to turn off. They came to appreciate and value their ability to change the world in which they lived. Moreover, you can instigate these kinds of changes as a team leader in small doable steps. You don’t need the whole organization. Each team truly became a team, and rather than having the manager integrate everything, the team was able to share ownership of each other’s work. Each team member was engaged in a collaborative way and that had profound effect on the output-–the deliverable,” adds Perlow.

What started as an experiment with a six-person team at The Boston Consulting Group triggered a global initiative that eventually spanned more than nine hundred BCG teams in thirty countries across five continents. These teams confronted their nonstop workweeks and changed the way they worked, becoming more efficient and effective. In addition, Perlow has begun to launch PTO initiatives in new organizations and different industries. Her wish is to “continue the quest to create teams and organizations where work is conducted in ways that best suit individuals’ needs without ever undermining—and ideally improving—the work process itself.”

Leslie Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School and the author of Finding Time (2007) and When You Say Yes But Mean No (2003). She is a keen observer of the micro-dynamics of work—how people spend their time and with whom they interact—and the consequences for organizations and individuals.