Thursday, May 31, 2012

How to Break the 24/7 Work Habit

First, let me apologize to those of you who tried to read this story I did for Gannett/USAToday in an earlier blog post. No matter what I tried the post ran together, refusing to mark paragraphs, bullets, etc. Well, today is a new day, so I'm trying this again.....

Do you take your smartphone to bed because you claim to use it as a nightlight? Or you say it’s the only alarm clock you have? Or you don’t want to 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 emails, perhaps sending off a few responses so you have one less 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 emails 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 our own fault, and 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 our need to be “on” 24/7 and learn if such a habit could be broken.
Using professional services firm The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) 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 found ways to turn off one night a week, they became closer as a team, more satisfied with their jobs and produced better company results. The company saw a clear improvement in recruitment, retention and engagement, and the process spread throughout the organization, she says.

Perlow says she chose the consultants because 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 and supported the efforts of disconnecting by everyone – and held one another accountable for slip-ups (such sending emails 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 emails. 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.
  • Don’t be stubborn. 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 that seem doable, but also are a stretch. For the BCG team, for example, the job’s unpredictable nature of never knowing there might be a night off was solved by giving everyone a certain night off. Just having that predictability was valuable for everyone, she says.
  • Meet regularly. It’s critical that a team shares on a regular basis what is 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 jump to conclusions or judgments but try to understand what’s going on by asking questions.
  • Hold one another accountable.  While the agreement may be entered into with the best of intentions by team members, it can be easy to slip back into old  patterns when work becomes stressful. That’s when it’s the most important, however, to remind one another to take a step back and realize that the work will get done better if the balance is maintained. Perlow says that her research has found that people with unpredictable work often try to gain predictability by becoming more connected – but that only leads 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.”


Hospital Dream jobs said...

These are some helpful tips! We are sometime so wrapped into a work bubble that we end up working 24/7.

Alex said...

What do you do when you're a one men team? I'm clearly showing some signs from those you mentioned there, good thing my smartphone broke and haven't had time to shop for a new one. I'll just try your advice. Nice post!

Anita said...

Before you buy that next phone, write out some new rules for yourself regarding when and. Where you will use it. Then, ask family and friends to help hold you to them.

Stephen Gemmell said...

People who complain about the 'work/life balance', secretly LOVE being available 24/7. They love to say to friends/family/colleagues: 'I replied to 200 emails, gave two presentations and prepared a third for next week today AND my boss called me from Europe at 02.00am and gave me a special project; I was up all night working on it and I was at my desk by 07:00am!'

These people are hollow inside and they seek to hide that fact from themselves by working non-stop, but because they don't want to come across to others as androids they read/write and ask others about how to stop working 24/7.

Friends read anything by Osho and Eckhart Tolle and stop hiding from life by burying yourself in constant work.

Anonymous said...

I created this monster and I had to be the one to put the monster back in its cage. My coworkers and clients expected emails from me in the middle of the night because I initiated this behavior, not them. I set a cut off time - probably still late by most standards, 7-8pm for sending/responding to work and things got back to normal and I no longer resented my colleagues for a habit which I started in the first place. Out of habit, I still found myself checking my email incessantly, but I didn't respond until the next work day, unless there was truly an emergency.

Another big help was to separate my work phone and personal phone. That way I can turn off the work smartphone and not check every time I hear a notification....I check in a couple of times during the evening and put the phone away.

Jamee Tenzer said...

This is such an important post. My clients (working moms) deal with the 24/7 temptation because they want to be in more than one place at a time. The upside is that connectivity allows us to be at our child's swim meet, but if we spend the whole time sending emails, what is the point? I couldn't agree more that we need to let our colleagues know what they can expect from us in terms of responsiveness.. If you don't want emails at 3am, don't respond to them at 3:02am... go working moms! Thanks for your post. Jamee Tenzer