I study the best way to improve the way we work so that we can have better work lives and better personal lives. We tend to separate the two in an either/or way, but, I think if you re-think work and the way we work, in a way that is motivated by wanting to make our lives better, it acts as a catalyst. When people at the team level come together and re-think work in ways that actually make their lives better, it also improves productivity.

Time as a group asset

The kernel of the idea is: Can we engage with teams to re-think work? It usually comes down to finding some way to inspire the team, something small and tangible that they can rally around. And it is usually something temporal. People manage their financial budgets, but they don’t manage their temporal budgets. They have deadlines, but don’t sit in a meeting and think about the trade-off of each person’s time, what each person could have been doing for that one hour.

The first insight I had was during my dissertation, when I first had blocks of quiet time to myself. This meant that not only did I get my quiet time, it actually meant that others couldn’t interrupt me, because it was quiet time for both of us. Then everyone had a huge insight: “Those things that I am doing to you are interruptions." When I came to you, it was interruption, but when you came to me it was an important interaction. So, we can actually re-think at the team level how we affect each other.

Re-working how we collaborate

Right now, our time is perceived as infinite. Everyone can find everyone any time. How many times have you responded to something late at night that wasn’t urgent? It’s equivalent to telling that person: “I am available if you actually have something urgent." So, next time they think that they might need you late at night, they are not going to think, “Okay, I only have till 5pm because she won’t be accessible after that". They will think: “Okay well, I’ll get to it, I am not there yet, she will be available." If we all put up boundaries, that person would have to think: How am I going to make sure that either I don’t really need it or I will get what I need in a different way?

I worked with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global consulting firm, for many years on an initiative to re-think how teams work, by making time-off predictable and required. We required each consultant to take one scheduled night off a week, during which he or she could not work after 6pm—not even to check or respond to e-mails or other messages. This was initially unthinkable for a professional services firm with an “always-on ethic", but it is now so successful that it is practised across the world in BCG.

The perk is that you get the night off, but the real benefit of taking a night off is that you are forced to think about how you work. If a last-minute deliverable comes up on a consultant’s required night-off, the team finds other ways to deal with it. Teams are powerful units—you can empower people to make important changes that will affect your life and the way you work.

What it takes to make this work

Leaders must create a safe space at the team level for them to experiment. If the leader has set the expectation that things are going to change, and doesn’t actually mean it, then teams get penalized. The goal is for organizations to be more respectful of what different people need, to respect individual boundaries, and to be a catalyst to learn to collaborate differently.

Leslie A. Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and founder of the Better Work Institute. She is the author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone.

As told to Aparna Piramal Raje

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