How to Turn Work Off
Leslie Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School. Her goal is to identify ways organizations can alter their work practices to benefit both productivity and employees’ well-being. She works closely with organizations to implement these changes – and study their impact. Trained as an ethnographer, she is a keen observer of the micro-dynamics of work – how people spend their time and with whom they interact – and the consequences for organizations and individuals.
Perlow is the author of two previous books, Finding Time: How Corporations, Individuals and Families Can Benefit from New Work Practices (1997) and When You Say Yes But Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies… and What You Can Do about It (2003). She has also published numerous articles in journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, and the Harvard Business Review. Prior to her academic career, she worked as a management consultant with Corporate Decisions, Inc. She graduated from Princeton University with a degree in economics and received her Ph.D. in Organization Studies from MIT. Perlow lives in Newton, Mass. with her husband and their three young daughters, who serve as a daily reminder of all that is involved in successfully integrating work and family.
There's a lot of pressure these days to be on, and there are some real, legitimate external factors for people, whether it’s the client might call or the customer might need something or you’re a manager and you manage across time zones.
Those are legitimate reasons why you might be on and maybe you could manage those better. My focus is on this: just the fact that you have those external factors causes you to create a culture of responsiveness because the client might call and so therefore everyone’s on all the time, in case the client calls.
The problem is that now everyone's on all the time and we come to expect that of each other. And then, we email each other late at night and we actually may or may not expect a response, initially. But the person getting the e-mail, their response is, "Well, maybe it’s not urgent but I should respond anyway and maybe it’s because I want to prove that had it been the clients, I was on." But for whatever reason, we start responding to these things and soon we amplify it internally to the organization and the team.
So much of the need for responsiveness is not actually driven by the factor that was initially legitimating it. And yet, we continue. In client service we always say, "Oh, we’re on all the time because of the client." The reality is it’s not the client much of the time.
I think, as individuals, it’s hard to create change. I think that if you turn off, the rest of the world does not. So the issue is how can we work together among the people who are actually interacting with each other and begin to create change? And so it’s less about countering the impulse and more about forcing us to have time when we’re off and really experience what's it like to be off and how, more importantly we work together to enable people to be off, so that the work won't always be piling up.
And if there is an emergency, someone else is aware of it and will call you only when it’s a true emergency as opposed to some last-minute request that could have been avoided, and could have been managed differently.
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