Switching off an "Always on" Culture
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.
Leslie Perlow: 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. And those are legitimate reasons why you might be on. And maybe we could manage those better. 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 it of each other. And then we e-mail 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 anyways." And maybe it’s because I want to prove that, had it been the client, I was on, so I’m showing that. Maybe it’s because I just want to check it off my to-do list because it’s easy and "let’s just get it done." Maybe it's because it makes me feel important in terms of who I am. But, for whatever reason, we start responding to these things and soon we amplify it internal to the organization and the team, and so much of the need for responsiveness is not actually driven by the factor that was initially legitimating it. And yet, we continue. You know, 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 chose to study BCG in particular because they’re an extreme case and I wanted to see if in an elite professional service firm, where people are always on and that's really the expectation and the client really does call and the client really does pay large sums of money, could we create change? Because I believed if we could create change here, then we should be able to create change most anywhere. And so with BCG, we spent a lot of time understanding the way they worked and the sense that, for them, it’s a lack of predictability and every night of the week there's a sense that they have to be on just in case. As a result, they get a lot of e-mail traffic from the team, and much of it feels urgent at that particular moment. It feels urgent because the partner really needs something and it really is necessary for the client. But if you start engaging in thinking about, did it have to reach that point? Had we thought about it earlier, could it have been different?
And so at BCG, the goal is 6:00, one night a week. For every individual, it’s a different night of the week. So, you know, two can have one night, but every night some people are on and some people are off. Because it’s very important that we’re still delivering the same 24/7 coverage to the client, but we put in place a system where people team. That doesn't mean that they’re generalists and they can necessarily do each other’s work, but they can intervene. They can know if a request is important. They can tell the client it can wait till tomorrow. They can say, you know, this is really urgent, and the 1 in 100 times it’s really, really urgent, call the person who’s off. So that’s the predictable time off piece of it.
And then, we simply did two things. One, we had a calendar and we looked back at everyone’s night off and we said "Did you take it, and, if not, why not?" and "What can we learn about how we could have done the work differently and could have made it possible?" And we learned a lot, so that going forward we changed it. And we also looked at next week’s calendar and we said, "You know, Tom, you’re off on Thursday night, but we have a major deliverable on Friday now. How are we going to work together as a team to make sure that that’s going to be okay?" We didn’t say what we normally would have said, which is, "Tom, yeah, you know, we have a major deliverable on Friday, so we expect you to work Thursday nights."
It had a measurable impact on people’s experience about both work and work-life. They experienced work as much more fulfilling. They experienced their work lives as much more predictable. They had more control. And it wasn’t just about the night off. The night off is just the lever that unleashes the conversation that gets people to feel like we can talk about the things that matter to us and then really work as a team to make those things possible. So lots of benefits for the individual.
I think the reason this went from a small experiment conducted by an academic to a global initiative at the Boston Consulting Group, which is now in well over 1,000 of their teams in more than 30 countries, that’s because it didn’t just affect the individuals. It also had a profound effect on the way they were working and taking initiative to do work differently, to prioritize, and it had measurable impact on retention and also the effectiveness and efficiency of the work process itself and ultimately on the work they were delivering to the client.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
The "always-on" work culture, says Leslie Perlow, drains morale and initiative, and scatters employees’ mental resources, making it difficult for them to take ownership of projects and prioritize their efforts. But changing it requires collective effort.
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