Disconnect from Work

Professionals can break their constant connection to the office to take time off.

By Donna M. Owens Jan 1, 2013

0113cover.gifAre you tethered to the workplace via your mobile device? Do you feel compelled to answer late-night or weekend e-mails?

If you fit the description of a hyperconnected worker—and millions of Americans do—then Harvard Business School professor Leslie A. Perlow has a revolutionary message: Disconnect.

Perlow is a trained ethnographer who analyzes the microdynamics of work—how people spend their time and with whom they interact—and the consequences for both organizations and individuals.

In Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012), the former management consultant makes the case for breaking the cycle of nonstop work.

How pervasive is the pressure to always be connected? And where have you helped change it?

The pressure to be “on” all the time is extensive. I surveyed some 1,600 managers and professionals, and only 2 percent turned off their mobile devices while on vacation.

The Boston Consulting Group was the ideal place to explore the possibility of turning off. It is a highly demanding client-service business. Partners and managers felt immense pressure to be responsive. I thought if we could create change there, it should be possible to foster it almost anywhere.

What happened?

Our initial experiment in 2007 involved a team of six. The employees were required to take one night off a week—totally off, not responding—and everyone had to take it. The team met weekly to confer about this col lect ive goal, to put a coverage system in place and to discuss their work process.

Was there much push back?

Oh yeah. Initially, there was a lot of push back and questions about how they would benefit. Some people were afraid that client needs would fall through the cracks. Others were socialized to think they didn’t want time off. We had to convince them, “It’s great you’re working so hard, but you are entitled to turn off.”

What was the outcome?

Employees were more satisfied with their work/life balance and with their work in general. They were more engaged. The work process was more efficient and more collaborative, thereby benefiting clients, too. The company was better able to recruit and retain employees. The results were stunning. Leaders were so excited by the results of the experiment that they decided to expand the initiative worldwide.

How can employers encourage workers— particularly younger people who have grown up with technology—to disconnect?

This is not an individual problem; there has to be a collective solution. It doesn’t require a major organizational makeover, but collaboration as a team to become more creative and make incremental changes. Through small doable steps taken by team leaders—not the chief executive officer—an organization’s culture can be transformed.

What are the first steps to breaking the 24/7 cycle of responsiveness?

Establish a team goal, encourage open dialogue about achieving that goal and, more generally, about how team members are doing. It is essential to have the support of team leaders.

What are the potential consequences of not disconnecting?

Teams and organizations are not as effective or efficient when they are connected 24/7. And individuals lack predictability and control in their lives. We all stand to benefit if we work together to create periods of predictable time off.

The interviewer is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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