Enforced Time Off Has its Benefits

September 30, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - While many workaholics fret about even a momentary disconnect from their work, a new study suggests employers who mandate cutting off work ties during time off may be doing themselves a favor.

Harvard University researchers worked with employee groups at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to put such a mandatory work disconnect in place.

The researchers said the experiment resulted in more open dialogue among team members, “which is valuable in itself.” But the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively, the researchers said.

According to a Wall Street Journal article about the study, after five months of predictable time off, internal surveys showed consultants were more satisfied with their jobs and work-life balance, and more likely to stay with the firm, compared with consultants who weren’t part of the experiment. Some clients told researchers the teams’ work had improved, partly because improved communication among team members kept junior consultants better informed about the big picture.

“Yet our research over the past four years …suggests that it is perfectly possible for consultants and other professionals to meet the highest standards of service and still have planned, uninterrupted time off,” wrote Harvard researchers Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porte. “Indeed, we found that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited.”

The Harvard researchers explained that the mandatory time off was established at the start of a project and required individuals to be off completely - no checking of email or voice mail.

Perlow and Porte said instituting the policy among the hard-driven BCG consultants was easier said than done. "The concept was so foreign that we had to practically force some professionals to take their time off, especially when it coincided with periods of peak work intensity," the researchers recalled. "Eventually, however, the consultants came to enjoy and anticipate having predictable time off, particularly as the benefits for their work became evident."

According to the researchers, the first BCG consultant team they worked with was servicing a new client the consultant company wanted to retain. Team members were forced to take off one day a week; the company added another consultant to help take up the slack.

The partner in charge of the team and the project manager were concerned the client would look askance of the experiment, but ultimately agreed. The BCG executives promised the client the trial would be canceled if it impacted the work, but the client eventually agreed to the idea.

"Their reasoning was that since their firm had been hired to help the client improve its work processes (of the sales force, in this case), they could position the experiment as their own attempt to do what they were asking of their client-namely, engage in process improvement," the researchers explained.

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