Making Time Off Predictable – And Required

Extracts and summary of the research: 'Making Time off Predictable and Required'.

Research Authors: Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter (October 2009)

Key quotes: 

  • “Responsiveness breeds the need for more responsiveness”
  • “When people are always “on,” responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners, and even institutionalized in performance metrics”
  • “Our experiments with time off resulted in more open dialogue among team members…[and] sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively”
  • “Compared with those not participating in the experiments, people on time-off teams reported higher job satisfaction, greater likelihood that they could imagine a long-term career at the firm, and higher satisfaction with work/life balance”
  • “Consultants and other professionals can provide the highest standards of service and still have planned, uninterrupted time off”
  • “The payoff… [is] about preserving a strong, engaged pool of talent and, ultimately, cultivating productive work processes for the long term”

Below is a summary of the article from the Harvard Business Review: 

BCG ran a number of predictable time-off experiments with their consultants on a number of projects over the course of a year. Initially, the consultants and project leaders were sceptical and feared career progression and team member retribution. Once the benefits of completely ‘switching off’ from work (and work-based technology) either one evening a week or one full day a week, the consultants noticed how refreshed they were when they recommenced their work. They also found they communicated more and created more efficiencies within their work processes. Additionally, their overall work-life balance improved. 

The researchers found that it is essential that everyone in the team take off the same ‘type of time’, to reduce perceptions of unfairness. This is also more conducive to team members protecting the time that they and their colleagues have off. 

They also found that having ‘time-off goals’ were an important part of the success of the experiment in addition to open dialogue, with regular weekly check-ins – where team members were accountable to and supportive of each other in how to improve their ability to take the required time off. These discussions shifted more towards “how work was being done [rather] than on what work was being done” and towards “priorities, expectations, and problems”, rather than just the problems they were encountering. 

Implementing a work culture or norm that encourages teams to experiment with different processes, allows previously unquestioned ways of doing things. The option of transforming processes into more efficient, effective and integrative ways of working can also increase team collaboration and learning. 

The change in work culture needs to be underpinned with support, openness and encouragement from senior levels. The measurement and rewarding of employee performance also needs adjusting to include: how well team members communicate and maintain personal commitments while delivering against project needs; and how well senior team members model having a sustainable career while respecting personal and team members personal commitments.