Leslie Perlow: How to Have Your Downtime -- Without Missing a Beat
JULY 14, 2021
Leslie Perlow isn't your typical workplace consultant. A Harvard Business School professor, she set out several years ago to cure the seemingly incurable: hard-charging management consultants at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) who were burning out at an alarming rate. She chronicled her experiment and findings in Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Change the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work. Here are some of her insights on how to successfully juggle the demands work and life:
Management consultants epitomize workaholics. What inspired you to tackle BCG's Type-A culture?
I was a management consultant before I went to graduate school, so I was very interested in the question 'Can we change the way we work?' At Harvard we tell our students all of the time that it's possible to balance work and personal life in ways that aren't necessarily mainstream. I went to BCG to see if it was possible to create change.
And what did you find? Were you able to identify the underlying reasons for BCG's high turnover?
I'm an ethnographer by training, which means that I'm like an anthropologist. I try to understand what people do all day and why. I went to BCG to see what they do and to find out if it could be changed. While I was there, I heard a lot of talk about long hours and a lot of travel. I discovered that employees were still signing up knowing about the long hours and travel, yet the real issue for them was the unpredictability of their work. Every morning for three months I had everyone in the Boston office answer these two questions:
How many hours do you expect to work today?
How many hours did you work yesterday?
I could see how many hours they actually worked versus how many hours they expected to work. I quickly realized just how far off they were every day -- they were off by an average of about 1.2 hours. The variation is just incredible. I realized that the real issue was unpredictability.
One of your first steps was to convince a team of BCG consultants to leave the office early one night a week and to do anything but work. How does tuning out for a specific period of time increase productivity?
The biggest benefit of this process is that we are helping each other turn off -- and empowering each other in the process. It's about learning that we can challenge assumptions and change things we didn't think we could change at a team or a unit level. This empowers us to make a difference, it creates an experimental learning mindset and a sense that we can actually do something about it. That happens because we have this small, doable, collective goal which is a stretch -- no one thought they could turn off one night a week at BCG.
What's important is figuring out a goal that is a stretch in your workplace and then that goal enables you to work together to make it happen. This teaches you to raise other issues. What we're studying in motion is a very positive dynamic of speaking up and experimenting and learning to do things differently. That has a huge impact on making work better and a huge impact on making our lives better.
What happened at BCG? Did your method work?
It had an enormous impact on retention: BCG saw a 76 percent increase in the number of consultants on the team who intended to stay at the company. That's the reason why this experiment went from one team to four teams, to 10 teams and then to 2,000 teams in 32 offices in 14 countries -- it's a huge global initiative now. They spend a lot of money staffing facilitators to make this idea happen because it gives you a better sense of control and more predictability. As they say at BCG: "It doesn't make a tough job easy, it makes a tough job better."
Leslie Perlow Photo Credit: alumni.hbs.edu
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