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Work-Life Balance: Predictable Time Off - Executive Leadership Articles

Work-Life Balance: Predictable Time Off

Executive Leadership Articles

Work-Life Balance: Predictable Time Off

The Boston Consulting Group is a multinational firm with 12,000 employees in more than 80 offices around the globe. When people accept positions with BCG, they expect to work long, hard hours. Management consulting is a demanding field and nobody thinks it’s going to be a cruise when they work for one of consulting’s “Big Three.”

Yet, according to an article by two of BCG’s senior partners*, the hard work that led to success in the field, even after initiatives providing for sabbaticals, part time work, and other alternative approaches, was causing their best employees to burn out and leave the company. When Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow offered to study the work culture at BCG, they hoped she might find ways to improve retention.

What Perlow found, as documented in Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), is not merely that the demands and challenges of the work itself were causing consultants to sleep with their phones under their pillows so they could respond to emails in the middle of the night, but that the pressure to do so was created by themselves, perpetuated by colleagues and clients in something Perlow calls The Cycle of Responsiveness.

In Perlow’s Cycle of Responsiveness, employees join a culture of making themselves increasingly available during off hours. Because they respond quickly to contact from coworkers and clients, those coworkers and clients know that they can reach out during these off hours, which puts inadvertent pressure on colleagues also to be available. The employee’s away-from-work lifestyle is affected, such as the ability to commit to social gatherings or spend time with families. Because everyone knows everyone else is available all the time, the kinds of communication that require instant feedback change, so that urgent needs aren’t the only ones attended to in what should be off time. This contributes to the always-on culture, which is perpetuated further.

The product might be excellent, but is the cost in employee burnout worth it?

Perlow’s team suggested something called Predictable Time Off. One selected BCG team was directed to make sure everyone on the team was given one night during the week during which he or she was expected to unplug from work. Whatever needed to be done by the others on the team to facilitate each person’s assured night off was made a priority, which not only forced everyone on the team to communicate better about what everyone was doing, but to set priorities on what kind of work needed to be done and what could be let go.

One problem, experienced by a team member who felt he was the only one who could do his work, was that the forced night off didn’t create less work; it only moved it around so that it had to be done by the same deadlines but in less time. This concern came to light in what Perlow says is a critical piece of the program: weekly meetings during which everyone on the team shares his or her feelings about the work, the time off, and the quality of the product being delivered to the client. Because this pilot group agreed to share honestly, and because most of the team’s members agreed that the predictable time off was making their lives and their work better, the others rallied around the needs of the dissatisfied team member, agreeing that this would only work if everyone on the team was seeing a benefit. This improved collaboration, communication, and camaraderie, which of course resulted in better work evaluations by supervisors and clients.

The PTO program (later renamed to stand for Predictability, Teaming, and Open Communications) was so successful that BCG put it action with thousands of teams in 72 of its offices. Perlow’s book, after documenting her group’s results, shares how it can be implemented in other companies’ teams and then expanded to entire companies. Perlow stresses that individuals working in their own professional space can only see what they need to do, and that in order for real satisfaction without burnout to occur, changes need to be with the whole team or system. In the highest-pressure work environments, it cannot be the employee who figures out for him- or herself how to find work-life satisfaction—the burden is on the employer, while the benefit is received by all.


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