Is Your Staff Sleeping with Their Smartphones?
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The Fiscal Times
May 31, 2012

In an effort to stay connected to work – and maybe to keep your job – do you or your team members sleep with your smartphones?

If you do, you’re in good company: More than a quarter of the managers and professionals at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the world’s most elite professional service firms, reported sleeping with their smartphones, according to a recent survey about work habits.

Their smartphone obsession was emblematic of a larger problem: More than 90 percent said they worked 50 or more hours a week; 70 percent said they checked their cellphones within an hour of getting up; and 56 percent checked their phones shortly before they went to bed.

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Curious about her findings, Harvard Business School professor Leslie A. Perlow dug into the ways these hard-charging professionals worked to see if there wasn’t a better, saner, healthier way to get things done. One of her more compelling findings: The professionals took it for granted that this was how they had to work. They “accepted the demands on their time as the price they had to pay for annual salaries of millions of dollars, for the most senior partners,” Perlow reports in a new book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work. They also assumed their clients and colleagues expected this. 

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“There’s a cycle of responsiveness” at work here, Perlow told The Fiscal Times. “There are genuine, legitimate external factors that we could manage better, whether it’s a client or a customer, and all of this has been augmented by technology,” she said. “But what’s really getting us out of control is a new dynamic among our internal teams that says we have to be ‘on’ all the time for each other. We’ve perpetuated and amplified this unpredictability to an extreme level.”

In response, Perlow developed something called “predictable time off” and rolled it out in extensive experiments at BCG. The idea was to alleviate work pressure during the week by making small, concrete changes among teams – without impacting productivity or efficiency. Each professional was guaranteed one night of “predictable time off” each week. 

There was resistance at first – for some surprising reasons. One manager said he’d worked every weeknight for his entire professional life (after putting in a full day) and wasn’t about to change. Besides, how would he spend his free time? (Hint: He started exercising again.) Hans-Paul Burkner, BCG’s CEO, ultimately said the new system proved “not only to enhance work-life balance, making careers much more sustainable, it also improved client value delivery, consultant development, and business services team effectiveness.”  

Leslie Perlow shared insights:

The Fiscal Times (TFT):  How much has today’s economy driven the 24/7 culture you describe? After all, people were not always expected to work 50, 60, 80-hour workweeks – and to be ‘on’ at any given moment. 

Leslie Perlow (LP):  The dynamic is worse today because of the economy, but now is actually the most important time to try to change it. It's counterintuitive. People think: ‘We need people to work this way. We need to do everything we can to be competitive in this market.’ But because people are willing to do it, afraid for their jobs and wanting to be seen as committed and responsive, we’re undermining the ability of teams to get their work done. It’s destructive. We’ve been too willing to play into it and not even recognize it for what it is.

TFT:  We’ve seen burnout for years. Aside from technology and the fast flow of information at our fingertips now, what’s new here?

LP:  People really do sleep with their smartphones. This is genuinely happening. But I find [the behavior] a metaphor, too, for how people have let work infuse their lives. There’s a problem here. You can work anytime, anywhere. It’s very liberating. You’re freed from the shackles of the office. It’s why people love it. But the arrangement comes with a huge cost. You’re also expected to be on, available, anytime, anywhere.

TFT:  What about employees just starting out? They can change the culture if they don’t like it – and many already have. 

LP:  It’s interesting. There’s increasing pressure for people entering the work force to find ways of working that allow more balance. But they’re also more addicted to technology. So we have to do something before this gets really out of control. I'm advocating we better learn how to manage technology so that we can better reap the benefits, but also manage the costs. You can have the benefits but not all these costs. That’s where opportunity lies.

TFT:  You stress total team buy-in for the “predictable time off” concept to work. That can be hard to achieve if you’ve got one holdout, let’s say.  

LP:  It’s all about building trust. You start with a small goal that draws a team together and provides them with a way to recognize how the work/life balance can be fixed. Once they see the success, you build from there. There is a snowball effect. And you bring in outside facilitators if need be.

TFT:  You’ve rolled this out at BCG very successfully. Where do you go from here? Do you see this rolling out to many other industries and companies?

LP:  That’s my hope. My goal is to transform as many organizations as we can, to create better work lives. I’d like to understand how this can play out with different kinds of teams. BCG was really important because it was global. I thought, If they can make a difference, in multiple time zones, with an enormous number of clients, then we can try very broadly to see the applicability and make a difference in many other places as well.
 
 

 

Managing Editor Maureen Mackey oversees scheduling and work flow and also writes and edits features and reports on a wide array of subjects. She spent more than 20 years as a senior book and features editor at Reader’s Digest.