Leslie Perlow is a Harvard Business School professor and the author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone. We talked with her not long ago about why people can't let themselves step away from their work—and how to build an incentive structure that encourages people to step away. In honor of #Unplug week, here's an edited selection of that conversation.
When I tell people they have to turn off, a lot of people say, "I don't want to. I don't know to, I'm a workaholic, I thrive from this, I make these choices, I'm at this stage in my life," and you get all this value for working all the time: They send you all of these positive signals, people also find it rewarding, you carry your phone around, it beeps. The more you respond, the more people email you, and so there's very positive reinforcement.
So you positively reinforce people to the other form of behavior, which is turning off. You slap their hand when they respond, and you say, "I'm going to value you for turning off." In the morning, you ask "Did you turn off?" And if you say "yes," they say "good job."
The people who were workaholics, they worried: "uh-oh, what's going to happen?" Person after person, they find out they actually like the time off. That's what led me to realize that so many people aren't workaholics—it's that we thrive on the positive reinforcement. And its whatever's the definition of success, and whatever we're getting all those pats on the back for, that actually is motivating the behavior. It's not that they are so deeply into their work.
What we want do ultimately, is begin to change the value system so (that) we value people for working in these alternative ways. But it's very hard to make the case that we should work less. It's very hard even if the organization sees the results, it's still a very complicated shift to make and to play out.
So what I have found is that when you try and tackle this head on, people get scared, people go back. 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, rather than feeling overwhelmed.
It's incredibly important that it be an issue that resonates with everybody within a small, selective team. It doesn't have to be the number one issue for everyone, but it has to be something that troubles everyone.
At [the Boston Consulting Group, her case study for Sleeping], unpredictability is a huge problem. Everyone junior, senior, and married into [the company] will tell you it's unpredictable. And at this (pharmaceutical) organization I'm at today, everyone will tell you they have way too many meetings. And as a result they have to stay late, come in early, work weekends, and make up for time so they can actually get the work they need to get done done.
Once you find (an issue) like that, it's important that everybody shares that same goal. If unpredictability's a problem, that doesn't mean that everyone has the same ideal that they're going to have the night off. In a lot of organizations, every person has their own goal—it's important everyone has exactly the same goal with no modification.
It's also important that everyone understands that it's shared, you don't succeed just because I got my night off, because I want the team to be working together to be rethinking how they work as a team.
The final thing is that it has to be concrete and measurable, so it's clear you did it or you didn't do it. You can measure it and you can reflect on it—so that way there's ongoing learning and thinking of the way that work is done.
My whole dream is to inspire team leaders to realize this incredible power to address an issue that is I think currently is either self help—to try and fix you, which doesn't really work, because we're embedded in a system so there's only so much you can do—or we go to the other extreme, 'well this a huge problem, an organizational problem, societal problem, and that's not something I as a middle manager can do very easily.'
What I want, going forward with this research, is for people to realize that there's an incredible amount that they can do in small steps to empower people to realize that this is about you, this about your team, and this is really, most importantly, about the bottom line.
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Nielsen]