Predictable Time Off: The Team Solution To Overcoming Constant Work Connection

Is everyone at your office sleeping with their smartphone? Here's how to break the habit--as an organization.

Reflecting on his relationship with his smartphone, one manager pronounced: “I love the thing and I hate it at the same time. The reason I love it is that it gives me so much power. And the reason I hate it is that it has so much power over me.”

Smartphones and other wireless devices give us the power to stay connected and free us from the shackles of the office. But that power brings ever-increasing demands to deliver to clients, customers, and superiors. We feel overwhelmed, overworked, and never free of interruption.

Advice on how to cope in this “always connected” age is plentiful: How to prioritize work better, manage your time more effectively across different domains of your life, survive email overload and even remedy your smartphone addiction. The trouble is that there is only so much that you can do alone: You can decide to turn off, but that does not mean everyone else will too.

A completely different type of advice focuses on improving not your life, but your organization. The goal here is to get people to speak up, voice their insights and feedback, and own their work process. Continuous Improvement, Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, and Organization Learning are initiatives that share this goal. The trouble is that it is nearly impossible to mandate open dialogue, and even if it emerges, any gains in efficiency that follow will be reinvested in the organization--not your personal life.

What I have discovered in my research is the power of integrating these two disparate, often complicated, and difficult to implement types of advice. Using your own need for less work (and more predictability and control) as a lever to change the way work is done can make your work more manageable and engaging and your work process more effective and efficient.

This insight derives from a six-year collaboration with an elite global management consulting firm, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). What started as a small field experiment with one BCG case team triggered a global initiative at BCG that after four years had involved more than 900 teams in 30 countries. Teams were not only challenging their non-stop workweeks but collaborating to rethink and improve the work process.

Four years after our first “Predictable Time Off” (PTO) experiment--afternoons or evenings totally disconnected from work and wireless devices, agreed-upon email blackout times, or uninterrupted work blocks that allow for greater focus, for example--72 percent of people involved said they were satisfied with their job vs. 49 percent of their colleagues who were not doing PTO; 54 percent of PTO participants were satisfied with their work-life balance vs. 38 percent; and 51 percent said they were excited to go to work in the morning, vs. 27 percent.

Not only individuals but the organization benefited: 58 percent of employees were more likely to plan to stay at the firm for the longer term, vs. 40 percent and 95 percent of employees involved in PTO perceived they were delivering significant value to their clients vs. 84 percent.

And here’s the kicker: unlike all the big, daunting change initiatives that require top-level involvement, new policies and programs, and large upfront investments, this approach simply requires a team to embrace together a set of small, doable steps:

  1. Every team member strives to achieve an agreed upon unit of predictable time off each week--the PTO Goal. This PTO goal should be of personal value to those on the team, creating a deep-seated motivation to participate. The goal should also be aspirational, as well as achievable, so as to engage people in the process and drive them to challenge assumptions and rethink ways of working in their efforts to achieve this goal. Lastly, the goal must be embraced collectively--every member of the team must participate, have the same goal and work to make it possible for themselves as well as each other. Otherwise, in a culture that values people for not taking time off, there is an incentive to make one’s own goal smaller and smaller, and to point fingers at those who adhere to the goal. Some contenders for a PTO goal include: 1) a night or afternoon totally off, disconnected from any work or wireless device; 2) email “blackouts” when messages are neither sent nor received; and 3) uninterrupted periods of work-time that enable more focused and therefore shorter work days.

  2. The team gathers weekly to discuss how well each member is meeting the PTO goal and to talk about the team’s work process more generally. These weekly discussions should focus on what happened during the past week and how it could have been different. The team should also discuss what needs to get done for each individual to achieve the goal going forward, and then work proactively to make this happen. The discussions also should include individuals each sharing how they are feeling generally about their work and their lives, as well as specifically how well they are doing delivering their output and how sustainable their current way of working is for them given their personal circumstances.

  3. Team leaders show support for team members’ engagement in the process. The only time I have seen teams that have undertaken PTO fail to outperform teams that are not involved is when the team’s leader is outright resistant. Leadership support does not require that the team’s leader be convinced that the process will work, but it does require that the leader is willing to experiment and empower his/her team to do so as well.

You, your colleagues, and your organization all stand to benefit. When these simple steps are followed, remarkable things happen. By legitimizing the discussion of personal time, as well as the collective act of experimentation, a more pervasive openness about surfacing work-related and work-life issues emerges. It also fosters people’s innate desire to work together to address these issues, and working together to address these issues in turn results in a shared sense that change is possible. People build trust and openness, and issues continue to surface--both work and personal. And, teams become increasingly committed to trying to tackle the issues that arise, experimenting with new and better ways of working. The organization benefits and so do team members.

Try embracing these three simple steps; the payoff is better work and better lives.

Leslie Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School and author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2012).

[Image: Flickr user Aftab Uzzaman]

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