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A self-described former “quant jock,” Leslie Perlow majored in economics at Princeton. But after studying with ethnographer John Van Maanen as a grad student at MIT, she grew deeply interested in “spending long periods of time living with and living like” the people she studied, “trying to understand the world from their perspectives.”

In her new book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business Review Press), Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, describes an experiment she conducted (with Jessica Porter) at the Boston Consulting Group, where teams of supercharged professionals collaborated to reclaim precious hours of personal time each week and reaped surprising work-related benefits in the process.

Are we literally taking our phones to bed with us?

In a survey we did of 1,600 managers and professionals in various organizations across the globe, 26 percent admitted to sleeping with their smartphones. So it’s literally true, but it is also a metaphor for something much bigger, which is the amount of time we are “on”—meaning at work or monitoring work remotely. Workaholics are nothing new in the managerial ranks, but technology has made a 24/7 connection to work the norm for many more people than ever before.

What kind of organizational costs are due to workers always being “on”?

There’s lots of evidence that working more doesn’t necessarily mean working better. With projects that require creativity, teamwork, and innovation, you come to a point where working more has diminishing returns. Over the long term, people burn out, or they get stuck in nonproductive work patterns. When people are working all the time, there’s a good chance that room for improvement exists in planning and prioritizing. When you and your colleagues seem to be working all the time, you may need to ask yourselves, “Does it really have to be this way?”

Is that the question you asked at BCG?

In the BCG experiment, our immediate goal was to make it possible for team members to have predictable time off each week. Typically, the target was one night with no work contact, but it could be any predictable unit of time. We started with a six-person team in Boston, and the results—in terms of worker satisfaction, client satisfaction, and improvements in work processes—were so positive that within four years, over 900 BCG teams from 30 countries had gone through similar exercises.

So this was a team-by-team project, not a top-down, company-wide initiative?

Yes. There’s a great deal you can do to facilitate change in interdependent groups, especially when everyone in the group realizes that the collective goal is also in his or her personal best interest. We started with one team, but the idea spread, especially when it became apparent that more predictability and control of people’s schedules could be achieved without negative organizational consequences.

So was it relatively easy to get team members on board with this?

Not at all! Remember, this was totally counter to the intense work culture at BCG and, if you think about it, in our society as a whole. We are raised to succeed on our own and rewarded for that. Taking time off—and worse yet, asking for help to make that possible—often is seen as a sign of weakness. So people get stressed out when the goal requires acknowledging that you can’t do it all yourself.

Why don’t people want to take more time for themselves?

They say it causes them more stress not to be connected all the time. They don’t want a night off, especially if they’re on the road and there’s nothing else to do. They worry about someone else covering for them. Talking about their nonwork needs in front of their colleagues makes them feel too vulnerable. The list is long.

So what makes people change their minds and embrace the process?

We developed a process, which is described in the book, but much of it has to do with small units of predictable time off and facilitated check-ins aimed at building trust and making incremental changes. I really came out believing that in order to get people on board, there is a huge benefit if you begin with small steps.

What kind of small steps?

At the core, there are two steps that lead to profound benefits on both work and life. First, establishing a unit of predictable time off for the team to rally around and second, scheduling a weekly team check-in. You start with a facilitated discussion around whether you can take your night off—and if not, why not. That might lead to conversations about how the organization could function more efficiently, which leads, in turn, to making changes where individuals’ lives are better and the work is better.

Once the collective goal is established, conversations about how to achieve the goal allow team members to surface issues and experiment with new ways of doing things. People begin planning work to accommodate the goal, which requires more communication about work flow and personal lives. The team-building piece of this is a big deal.

Could you give an example of the kind of conversations that might take place?

Let’s say a project deadline unexpectedly gets bumped up to a Thursday, and Wednesday is your scheduled night off. Previously, asking others to cover for you would be frowned on, but in the new arrangement, this is a collective problem. Team members proactively look at ways to meet the deadline without sacrificing your night off. It becomes a very powerful lever for prioritizing, as well as increasing trust, collaboration, and collective ownership of problems. It also inspires teams to think about client management in proactive ways.

And you believe it’s possible to take predictable time off without sacrificing client service?

When this is successfully implemented, it is seamless, plus clients benefit from what happens behind the scenes, such as better work processes, internal communication, collaboration, and renewed creativity that fuels innovative problem-solving.

A key reason why BCG or any company would be interested in this research has to do with the concepts of encouraging open dialogue, learning, and creative collaboration—goals that have been studied and written about from many different angles over the years. What’s novel about this exercise is that it uses personal issues as the catalyst to change work habits in ways that benefit people’s professional and personal lives while creating organizations that are more open, effective, and adaptable. It shows that working less really can help us to work better.

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