Why unplugging can lead to happier, more productive workers

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Why unplugging can lead to happier, more productive workers

A report from the Redesigning and Redefining Work Project

by Alison Wynn on Monday, August 20, 2012 - 8:48am

Can teams work together to make it possible for their members to take one day off per week and still be a star team? This was the question Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow asked the consultants at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Perlow examined the validity of a common myth among the firm’s employees: Constant availability is essential to the success of team projects, and ultimately, the company. Her six-year research project at BCG showed otherwise. In a recent talk at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Perlow demonstrated how this simple experiment can change company culture.

 The cycle of responsiveness

Expectations of constant availability fuel what Perlow calls a “cycle of responsiveness.” Due to external pressures of accessibility (usually from clients), consultants develop a culture of responsiveness, and they adapt their lives to accommodate this culture. They keep their phones on all night, check their emails first thing in the morning, and reply to emails on weekends. These accommodations then reinforce the expectations of constant availability. The cycle becomes an unbroken chain of behaviors that reaffirm the basic ideology shaping the workplace culture — to be a good consultant, you must always be “on.”

The cycle of responsiveness becomes an unbroken chain: to be a good consultant, you must always be “on.”

Perlow did not start this project with an emphasis on gender, but her research conveys the gendered implications of the company’s policies. Expectations of constant availability tend to disadvantage women, who are more likely than their men colleagues to have family responsibilities that make these work behaviors difficult. However, Perlow emphasizes that changes to the workplace culture of responsiveness would benefit both women and men.

Can changes benefit workers’ lives and company outcomes?

While observing the consulting firm, Perlow found that the perceived unpredictability of where and when work was conducted caused dissatisfaction and high turnover among employees. Consequently, Perlow asked if the micro-dynamics of work could be changed to benefit both workers’ lives and company outcomes. To answer this question, she conducted a series of experiments with teams of BCG employees, both men and women. In one experiment, each consultant on the team was required to take off one weekday each week. During this day off, the consultant could not use his or her phone, email, or any other piece of technology to connect to work. The team was also required to meet weekly to discuss its progress—meetings that required team members to engage in structured dialog about the timing and sequence of work tasks.

Texting (source: Alton/Wikimedia)At first, the consultants worried this time off would hinder their productivity and advancement. However, in time they noticed unexpected benefits; in addition to increasing their productivity and satisfaction, consultants found that the planned absences increased communication among team members. The flexible work arrangements legitimated open conversations about work-life balance that enabled the team to determine the best way to get the work done. Teams engaged in conversations about the timeline for deliverables, the priorities of each team member, and collective goals. Rather than pitting personal lives against organizational goals, flexibility became a catalyst for positive change. If a company alienates personal needs, it risks high turnover and losses in satisfaction and productivity. Reconciling the needs of the workers and the larger organization improves outcomes for both individuals and companies.

Português do Brasil (Wikimedia)Redefining work

As a result of this experiment, the BCG redefined for itself what it means to be a good worker. They identified a way to simultaneously improve both “work” and “life.” Clients reported increased satisfaction with the experimental teams, and consultants on these teams reported increased likelihood of staying with the company. Moving forward, Boston Consulting Group decided to create a global initiative where team members each take off one night per week where they don’t use work cell phones or check work emails. To date, over 1,000 teams from 32 offices in 14 countries have participated.

Companies often fear that increased flexibility will cause a drop in productivity, but Perlow found just the opposite. Some open questions remain: For example, can these findings be generalized to other industries besides consulting? Future research can evaluate other ways of challenging constant availability norms in other contexts, such as part-time work or alternative travel schedules. Even so, Perlow’s study provides an encouraging and inspirational image of a new workplace — a workplace that recognizes employees’ personal lives and encourages open dialogue to structure work in conjunction with (rather than in opposition to) employees’ personal commitments.


photo of Leslie Perlow

Leslie Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. She is a member of the Clayman Institute Redesigning/Redefining Work Project. Perlowis author of the recently published book, Sleeping with your smartphone: How to break the 24-7 habit and change the way you work.


Alison Wynn is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at Stanford and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.