New Book by HBS Professor Advocates for Downtime

"Sleeping with Your Smartphone" uses results of study with Boston Consulting Group employees to develop strategy

In an era of increasing workplace pressure, a new book by Harvard Business School professor Leslie A. Perlow encourages companies to create policies that allow employees to break the 24/7 work habit.

In “Sleeping with Your Smartphone,” which will be released later this month, Perlow addresses the harmful effects of a work culture that requires employees to respond to work demands at home, during weekends, and on vacation. Through a survey of over one thousand managers and professionals, Perlow found that 26 percent slept with a smartphone, while 70 percent checked their smartphone within an hour of waking up each day.

According to Perlow, career pressures often keep individuals tethered to their mobile devices, even if the work itself is not urgent.

“You can turn off, but that doesn’t mean that everybody else turns off,” she said.

Though Perlow acknowledges that institutional change is a large-scale endeavor, she said she believes that work habits can evolve if company employees make little improvements within small teams.

“We have tremendous power as a team to take ownership of our work time and make a difference along the way,” Perlow said. “My message is that you, on your team, tomorrow, can make a difference.”

“Sleeping with Your Smartphone” centers around a 2007 experiment that Perlow conducted on a small team of Boston Consulting Group employees. Team members were each assigned specific nights to be “off” from work, in which they were not expected to respond to their smartphones or email.

The employees also engaged in weekly discussions about changes that they observed in their productivity and satisfaction.

According to Deborah N. Lovich, who managed this first team that collaborated with Perlow, employees involved in the experiment were 75 percent more likely to report envisioning themselves at BCG for the long-term.

“We found that people who were working in this new way were happier on every dimension of job satisfaction,” Lovich said.

She continued that employees within teams learned to prioritize their work and gained more control over their personal lives—leading to a more enjoyable work experience. Since Perlow’s first experiment, the team-building initiative has grown within BCG and is now being implemented within their offices in Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and London, according to Lovich.

“It was really quite viral,” Lovich said. “In 2007, I did the first experiment with my own team; by the end of this year, this will be something in place in most of BCG’s offices around the world.”

Lovich, who is now the head of consulting and business services at BCG’s Boston office, said that Perlow’s recommendations have helped the company retain its key staff. She added that she expects more companies to embrace Perlow’s strategy for achieving a better work-life balance.

“This is rolling out of BCG because it works, and I suspect it’ll go elsewhere,” Lovich said.

—Staff writer Brian C. Zhang can be reached at brianzhang@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION:

An earlier version of this article referred to Deborah N. Lovich as the head of consulting and business services at Boston Consulting Group. In fact, Lovich is in charge of consulting and business services at the consulting firm’s Boston office.

Tags