Be honest: How often do you check your work email right before you go to bed, and then again almost immediately after you wake up?And in the meantime–just in case–your smartphone rests about an arm’s length away from your bed?
You’re effectively sleeping with your smartphone–and working 24 hours a day.
And you’re not the only one, says Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. In her new book, Sleeping With Your Smart Phone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, Perlow reports that of the 1,600 managers and professionals she surveyed, 92% said they put in 50 or more hours of work a week. Of this number, 72% said they checked their smartphones every morning within an hour of waking up and 62% checked their devices before going to bed.
These stats got Perlow thinking: Is staying plugged in 24/7 even necessary? And can you change the way people work and improve their performance? Perlow set out to find the answers at a company that prides itself on being available for clients around the clock: global consulting firm Boston Consulting Group.
Perlow’s idea grew organically with a small consulting team at BCG three years ago. She suggested a collective goal that, at least to the team, sounded extremely drastic: Each person would take a night off from work–no responding to emails after leaving the office, no answering calls from clients. They would power down, disconnect, and let the other team members take care of whatever came up.
But the night off came with one crucial requirement: Every week the team would check in as a group to discuss… their feelings.
Sound like a hokey practice? Perlow says the collective goal plus discussion equation is key. “The equation increases the level of teamwork,” Perlow says. “People are covering for each other with a collective goal in mind. The team knows more about what’s going on, so it creates an openness and builds a deeper sense of trust.”
Initially, most of the team members were hesitant: The “always on” mentality comes with the territory of working at a firm like BCG, they said. In fact, one employee refused to even acknowledge that working 24/7 could be problematic.
A couple weeks into the experiment, they were enjoying their one night of powering down–everyone except for the lone sceptic, “Bob.” Unlike everyone else, Bob resented his night off, claiming that no one was really covering for him and that it just created more work for him the next day. His complaints made the group realise something crucial: The ultimate success of the experiment didn’t depend simply on whether each person took a night off, but whether everyone took the night off–and valued it. If they were going to succeed in changing their 24/7 work hours, every person had to commit to the collective goal and thus pull together to make it happen.
Bob and the rest of the team agreed to try again and air any complaints about how it was going. As they did, they began to learn about what was important to each other outside of work. They started communicating more, planning ahead, and even helping each other get out the door early. Five weeks into it, even sceptical Bob was disconnecting–and enjoying it. The quality of the team’s work went up–while the number of hours put in went down.
Now, three years later, the entire company has used the same formula (collective goal plus structured dialogue) to make even more changes to how BCG employees work and break the 24/7 cycle.
Changing the Way Your Company Works
Want to try powering down at your business? Here are some of Perlow’s tips for introducing a big culture change:
- Model the behaviour yourself. You’re the boss. Your support is necessary to reaching the team goal. Without full commitment from you, the equation cannot function properly.
- Don’t skip the dialogue. Perlow found that those groups who set a goal, but dismissed the dialogue, were less satisfied overall than the groups who engaged in both parts. Talking to each other builds trust and common ground. Plus, you must address points of stress out in the open.
- Be brutally honest and embrace mistakes. Of course, people are going to slip up. Someone may, for example, try to email a team member on her night off. How you respond is key to whether the experiment will fail or succeed. “The true test of leadership is to turn a mistake or a problem that makes others uncomfortable into a learning opportunity,” Perlow writes. “Punishing someone for an error is likely to silence the whole team for a long time.”
Perlow says even the most forward-thinking companies that pride themselves on their work cultures still have a lot of work to do. In fact, she is currently helping Googlers find more balance in their work days.
“We’re trying to find a way to change the way people work, not accommodate the way they already work,” Perlow says. “Doctors save lives when they’re on call but when they’re not on call, they’re off. We’re only on and on call 24/7 and we need to change that.”
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