Slacking At Work Is A Controversial Productivity Tool—So Is There A Better Way?

Tony Schwartz recently touched a nerve by suggesting that we could achieve more at work by working a little less. If slowing down generally isn't the answer, is there a better way for companies to create a workflow suited to humans, with all their limitations?

"More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace," Tony Schwartz recently wrote in The New York Times. "Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less."

The Energy Project CEO cited a range of research regarding how "strategic renewal"—think daytime workouts and naps plus increased sleep, vacation, and time away from office—boosts health, productivity, and performance.

Tony Schwartz

Schwartz's stance touched a (clearly overworked) nerve. One commenter wrote that the article regards how decision-makers should treat themselves with "with no consideration of whom they supervise," another that only the affluent can "choose a saner way of life," and another that in the Calvinist-Puritan work ethic of America, "naps, vacations, and breaks signify moral sloth and brands you as a slacker."

21st-century business, 20th-century cultures

As Schwartz tells Fast Companywhere he's written before—the outpouring comes from workers' shared need to renew clashing with leadership that recognizes that fact. Aside from the most progressive of companies, it's rough all over.

A 2011 Harvard Medical School study estimated that sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies $63.2 billion in productivity per year, and yet a recent Towers Watson study of 50 global companies showed that companies with "high sustainable engagement"—driven by culture and relational work experience—have an average one-year operating margin nearly three times higher than their more traditional peers.

According to the study, "companies are running 21st-century businesses with 20th-century workplace practices and programs," or, as Schwartz says, an industrial, assume-resources-are-infinite model, now accelerated by technology, is hitting its limit.

"Most people continue to assume that ‘I can spend as much energy as I want with no consequences, because there will always be more where that came from,'" Schwartz says. "Physiologically, we've hit the limit of the number of hours that all but the most unusual human beings can work and still be able to produce at a high level."

So if we're reaching the limits of what we can get done, and there's profit to be made from taking care of employees, how can we move our companies toward a more sustainable model?

Leslie Perlow has an answer.

Leslie Perlow

The time off is a lever

"There are first order benefits to taking the time off," says Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor, "but I think the real business case is (that) in working together to make that time off possible, companies actually re-think how you work and how to be productive."

Perlow recently catalyzed something seemingly impossible: She helped a team within the high-level Boston Consulting Group take predictable time off, a process which opened up insights cataloged in the book Sleeping With Your Smartphone. One of the keys is to understand the delicacy of the process. She cautions against "creating a space for discussion"; rather, find a small, doable something that a given team can rally around.

While we might aspire to ideals of openness and trust, proclaiming—or sloganeering—them from on high gets a little threatening.

"You can't mandate people to open up and have these conversations," she says, "(but) if you have some small doable goal, it really rallies the team to work together and it legitimates all of a sudden talking about things you'd never talk about before."

A thought experiment

Imagine you're a consultant. Your day off is Wednesday. On Thursday you have a big client deliverable. Would you ever raise your hand and say "I can't work Wednesday night, it's my night off"? If you wanted to keep your job, probably not. Such an explanation wouldn't be considered legitimate; everybody would work like crazy to make the deadline.

But if everyone on the team agreed that each person would have a night off every week, you could show up to your meeting and say that you need to take your night off and the work still needs to be resolved. Questions start to be asked: "How are we going to actively think about what needs to get done, such that I can get my night off and get stuff delivered on Thursday?"

It's a matter of homing in on one problem, Perlow says. At BCG, unpredictability is a huge issue and prevented employees from being able to completely unplug. From these conversations about how to give someone a night (totally) off, a team that Perlow covered created a job-sharing system so that every person's work was 80% theirs and 20% another's. By having that initial conversation, the way everyone worked was redefined.

But that change didn't happen in one fell swoop.

"When you try and tackle this head on, people get scared," she says, "but if you take it one step at a time, it can have a profound impact in a way that people can increasingly buy in."

But what if I don't want to turn off?

When Perlow introduces these ideas, she often gets a lot of resistance, a chorus of I don't want to, I don't know how to, I'm a workaholic, I thrive on this, I'm at this stage in my life. As well, there's the instant rewards of beeping messages and speedy replies, adding up to a lot of positive reinforcement for working nonstop.

As she observed in Harvard Business Review, the people who thought of themselves as addicted to work were really addicted to success and its signals. So if you want to build a team culture where people are encouraged to unplug and renew, rewire the signaling. Cheer when people come in and say that they unplug; slap their wrist when they don't.

We thrive on the validation, Perlow says, not the work itself. So a team, through increasing buy-in, can redefine their terms of success. To do that, start with these steps.

  1. Choose an issue that resonates with everybody: Doesn't have to be the number one issue, but one everyone relates to. At BCG it was unpredictability. At Perlow's new station at a pharmaceutical company, the problem is endless meetings, making work spill into off hours.
  2. Share the same goal, without modification: For BCG, the night off created something predictable. For the pharmaceutical company, a meeting-free day of working from home ensures work gets done.
  3. The goal has to be concrete and measurable: You either took the night off or you didn't; the meeting-free day either happened or it didn't. Getting specific with the goal allows not only for easy tracking, Perlow says, but also reflection, allowing for ongoing learning and re-thinking of the way work gets done.

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Dana Le]

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  • Marguerite Tennier

    I read all books by Tony Schwartz - The Power of Full Engagement, How we're working is not working and Be Excellent at Anything - and they don't talk about slacking at work, a most unfortunate term in this title.  They talk about recovery time to function better, to be more productive and healthier. The human body is not a machine but is treated so by many people and corporations.  The three books are a must read for any leader, and for anyone who values her-his life in this age where a drink or a pill are the solutions for many to deal with stress.  Schwartz's books are the equivalent of "clean" or "green" energy as opposed to more "greenhouse gas" types of fuel.  As a coach working with women close to burnout, I revere writers like Tony Schwartz who speak up to wake us up and offer solutions that are a win-win. 

  • Breean E. Miller

    It seems like we need to all get a bit more flexible when it comes to how we define work in this century. I think the Millennial generation is definitely going to help redefine and blur the line between work and life.

  • Chris Reich

    The article is brilliant and identifies what is a serious problem at many businesses.

    The use of the term "slacking" is unfortunate as it causes immediate push back by management. What is really happening, and the article speaks to it, is that people are burning out from being compelled to do too much unproductive work.

    The most common form this takes is requiring endless reporting on metrics that are known shortfalls sucking up time to deal with KPIs that matter.

    In general, people want to do meaningful work in a reasonable amount of time. They need clear goals, good tools and adequate work hours to accomplish those goals.

  • Paul H. Burton

    I recently co-authored one of my Bite-Sized Booklets titled "Working on the Move." (Available for free - just let me know you'd like a copy via reply here.) The opening premise of the booklet is that we must return to a more rural sensibility as it relates to our personal and professional lives. 

    The notion is that prior to industrialization, when we lived in rural environments, our time was structured around the sun's rising and setting. All things got prioritized and accomplished based on a 24x7x365 year, regardless of their categorization of personal to-do or professional (work) task. 

    When we moved into the cities to work in the industrialized world, we physically separated our work place from our personal place. Moreover, that physical separation created two distinct time slots for our lives - work time and personal time. For the last 150 years, that's how we've seen our lives.

    Enter the modern era of knowledge worker in a globalized environment. The physical separation of work place and personal place is crumbling and with it the slots we've all used to to measure our time. 

    We need to do several things to make that transition easier.

    1. We must leverage our technology tools instead of being enslaved by them.
    2. We must embrace the 24x7x365 world again and shed the notions of work time and personal time.
    3. We must embrace the fact that work is a valuable aspect of life and to focus on getting things actually done versus persist in merely returning serve.
    4. We must embrace the fact that our personal life is just as valuable and take breaks during the day and week to make time for those we love, understanding that these very breaks make us more energized and productive during our work efforts.

    A bit longer than I expected, but this notion of returning to a rural mindset as it relates to our lives is something that can free us from the chains of the industrial era.

  • Paul H. Burton

    Just sent it. Let me know if you don't receive it. I put an @ between your name and the web address.

  • Vi Allan

    Hi Paul
    Could I please have a copy of your "Working on the Move"?
    Thanks in anticipation...

  • Barry Lunnon

    Hi Paul,

    Can I please have a copy as well.

  • Lyle Chausse


    I would love a copy of your writing.

  • Paul H. Burton


    Just sent a PDF copy to you via e-mail. Let me know if you don't receive it.