Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How to Break the 24/7 Work Cycle

Lots of people tell me they'd like to give up the 24/7 work habit, but no matter what they try, it cannot be done.

The biggest problem, they tell me, is that their coworkers or their boss are hooked into the "always on" mode, so it means they must be also.

That's why I think this research from Leslie A. Perlow is so interesting. It shows that disconnecting from the 24/7 world can be done...but it takes a team effort.

Here's the column I did for Gannett/USAToday.... Do you take your smartphone to bed because you claim to use it as a nightlight, say it's the only alarm clock you have, or need to make sure you don't miss a critical text?

Here's the problem with that thinking: Now that the phone is only an arm's reach away, it's easy to check a few e-mails, perhaps sending off a few responses so you have one fewer thing to do tomorrow.

 You've just stepped onto a very slippery slope that will make it difficult not to be connected 24/7. You've become one of those millions of workers who fire off e-mails at midnight or reach for the smartphone before your first cup of coffee every morning.

You may claim that you have to work this way because your job — or your employer — demands it. But Leslie A. Perlow finds that this drive to stay connected all the time is really your own fault, not something that can be blamed on just an employer or a job.

Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and decided to conduct some research into workers' need to be "on" 24/7 and learn if such a habit can be broken. Using professional services firm the Boston Consulting Group as a sort of guinea pig, she asked a team of high-powered, always-connected consultants to see if they could disconnect more and actually improve their performance and job happiness.

Perlow unveils the results in Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way Your Work, (Harvard Business Review, $27). She found that the team not only discovered ways to turn off one night a week, they also became closer as a team, more satisfied with their jobs and produced better results.

The company saw a clear improvement in recruitment, retention and engagement, and the process spread throughout the organization, she says. Perlow chose the consultants because she says they were an extreme example of being connected, often putting in long work days and staying connected even through vacations or other time off.

But by committing as a team to predictable time off for each person, they communicated more, supported everyone's efforts to disconnect — and held one another accountable for slip-ups, such sending e-mails during designated time-off periods.

"The problem when someone is connected 24/7 is that it sets a norm for other members of the team," she says. "They start to feel that to be responsive, they have to respond late at night to e-mails. It's not even urgent, but it just matriculates all this bad behavior."

In other words, the biggest enemy to work-life balance is us. "Even doctors, who do life-saving work, have times when they are off and times when they are on call," she says. "So, why don't the rest of us?" The process of predictable time off will work only if all the team members agree to it, she says.

If a team wants to try it, she gives a list of suggestions in her book:

 • Be honest. Tell other team members your hopes and fears. • Stop the stubbornness. Maybe the collective goal of the group — having an afternoon off every two weeks — doesn't meet your top priority. Still, don't let that stop the process. Look for goals everyone can meet but also are a stretch. Members of the Boston Consulting team never knew when they would get a night off. That uncertainty was solved by giving each person a regular evening when they weren't expected to be plugged in. Just having that predictability was valuable for everyone, she says.

• Meet regularly. A team must share regularly what's happening in their lives. This helps build trust and a willingness to support one another. If things get off track with a team member, don't rush to judgment but try to understand what's going on by asking questions.

 • Hold one another accountable. Team members may enter into the agreement with the best of intentions, but it can be easy to slip back into old patterns when work becomes stressful. However, that's when it's most important to remind one another to take a step back and realize that the work will be done better if the balance is maintained.

Perlow says her research has found that people with unpredictable work often try to gain predictability by becoming more connected, but that leads only to more unpredictability. "The key to remember is that we're often our own worst enemy," Perlow says. "You do have a choice in changing things."

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