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The last few years have been tough on U.S. workers, even those lucky enough to have kept their jobs. While layoffs squeezed more profits out of each remaining employee, vacation time dropped and job stress increased.
Leslie A. Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor, thinks she's found a way to give American workers their lives back. In her new book, "Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work," Perlow chronicles her experiments at Boston Consulting Group. There, she found ways to get extreme workaholics to take more time for themselves -- without, she insists, hurting their work output.
Her strategy to give employees more of their time back was twofold. First, get a team of workers to agree on a collective goal, one that would improve their personal lives. Second, use some extreme honesty to make the team more efficient while changing the workplace's unsustainable culture.
Change like that is easier said than done, particularly at a management consulting firm like BCG. When consultants aren't working 16-hour days, they're tethered to the job through e-mail. They must cancel without notice everything from exercise classes to dinners with family and friends. Health and family relationships suffer, and many high-performers burn out and quit. The loss of skilled employees is precisely why BCG allowed Perlow to make the firm her guinea pig, says Deborah Lovich, the head of consulting and business services staff in BCG's Boston office.
Data on vacation trends, though scarce, confirm that a wide variety of employees are feeling extra pressure. One Kelton Research survey of 1,002 adults for Carlson Hotels found the average American worker didn't take 4.8 days of entitled vacation time last year. Comparisons with a similar 2005 survey by the Families and Work Institute suggest average vacation time has fallen 9 percent in seven years, to 13.4 days per year.
And even if workers take their allotted vacation, they're still putting in overtime in other, often difficult-to-measure ways. They're staying later and arriving earlier, while checking e-mail on nights, weekends and vacations. "Work doesn't stop. [It] keeps coming at you," says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. "We're wired 24/7."
At BCG, Perlow set a modest goal: Each week, get every member of a team one night off. This must be predictable time off, with no e-mail and no last-minute cancellations that foil plans. BCG employees soon loved their night off, and -- to ensure the experiment's success -- prodded co-workers, even bosses, to leave the office on their assigned nights. "No, we can handle it. It's time to go," they said. When one team member complained he was just moving work around -- rescheduling Tuesday-night work to Friday night or Saturday morning -- the team tried to find ways to ease his burden.
Perlow acknowledges that a company's 24/7 culture can't be changed this easily. That's because there is serious momentum behind what Perlow calls the "cycle of responsiveness." When intense, ambitious people work together, the incentives are tilted toward overworking.
For example, consider those late-night e-mails. To prove I'm a good worker, I stay online late into the night. You, my co-worker, realize how available I am, so you start e-mailing more frequently during off hours. This, in turn, means I need to be even more available, and can result in my e-mailing other co-workers for help, spreading the "culture of responsiveness" to other employees. No one wants to look like a slacker.
The key to breaking this cycle is communication, Perlow says. So she held a weekly meeting of "structured dialogue" where everyone answers a series of questions about how he or she is feeling about work and personal life -- and where candid conversation is strongly encouraged. "If you create a forum where everyone is speaking up, it becomes less risky to speak up," says BCG's Lovich.
BCG employees became more blunt as they saw outspokenness get results. A senior partner found out how much time was being wasted each week preparing presentations for him. Another boss found out his daily schedule was driving his subordinates nuts: They wouldn't have much to do in the morning, and then he'd e-mail assignments at 3 p.m. that would have them working late into the night. The openness worked both ways: One team leader admitted he didn't like his employees taking a break each day for a late-afternoon exercise class.
In the first team Perlow studied, workers found ways to reorganize work so that they could take 94 percent of their nights off. BCG has rolled the process out to other teams. By the end of 2012, the company expects 80 percent of its teams worldwide will have implemented Perlow's ideas, says BCG's Lovich, noting that teams who do so are "happier on every dimension."
Perlow admits the consultants at BCG are an "extreme case," but says the process can succeed at other workplaces. She's now working with a pharmaceutical company where hours aren't long, but employees are choosing other collective goals that make their days less stressful.
Good managers may be following Perlow's prescription without realizing it. Robbie Cape is chief executive officer and co-founder of Cozi, a mobile application that helps families manage daily life with calendars, to-do lists and communication tools. His goal is to get his 35 employees, most based in Seattle, to "work at a sustainable pace" -- which he defines as at most eight hours a day. His method? "We literally talk about it all the time," he says. If an employee is feeling stressed, he resets priorities. "It's all a matter of getting those individuals to be focused on the right set of things during those eight hours," he says.
Saner work schedules will depend on managers who care about their employees' home lives and who aren't offended by candid feedback -- or afraid to give it. Perlow quotes one manager, scolding an employee for working on a planned night off: "I firmly think you could have made it work if you had prioritized your work better." That's a new one: getting scolded for not not working.