“My father told me that it took a wedding to actually have a conversation with me,” said one consultant at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group (BCG) during a Harvard Business School study on work-life balance.
The consultant had taken a two week vacation for his wedding and honeymoon, and during that time he completely turned off from work. The positive impact on family led him to set a goal of keeping weekends clear for time with his wife. Nevertheless, he soon found himself back in his habit of working almost every weekend.
Have you ever set a work-life balance goal only to find yourself lured back in to old habits by emails, deadlines and last minute urgent projects?
Leslie Perlow, Professor at Harvard Business School, has dedicated the past ten plus years to studying why it is so difficult to break 24/7 work habits even when we know that they have negative impact on productivity, performance, relationships and health. One of her eye-opening findings has been that it takes a team to break the inefficient ‘always on’ cycle.
She began an experiment with teams within Boston Consulting Group that was later expanded across 30 locations internationally because of the positive impact in several important areas, like retaining talent. The experiment came at a time when “more than the usual number of star performers were choosing to leave the firm”.
There is much to be learned from the 4-year project, which is documented in Perlow’s book Sleeping with Your Smartphone. As an overview, consider three reasons you will probably make more progress on work-life balance if you tackle it at the team level.
- Commitment: Keep your reputation
A common reason professionals don’t speak up about their work-life balance concerns is that they fear it will send a signal that they are not committed to their work. Mentioning your child’s birthday party in the context of an important client deliverable can feel risky or out of place. But if all of your team members are openly discussing personal obligations with your team leader’s approval, then much of the risk of looking unprofessional is minimized.
- Culture: Stay competitive
Top organizations often have competitive cultures, and this can lead to a sense that taking time off means sacrificing some of your hard-earned competitive edge. It’s no fun to feel like you are choosing between your child’s birthday party and a promotion. Perlow’s experiment indicates that setting collective goals can level the playing field. She asked each team to commit to one work-life balance practice, for example, taking one pre-selected weeknight off from work – no emails, no logging in remotely – completely off. Not only did each team member commit to taking their individual night off, but they also committed to making sure other team members took theirs. If everyone is taking their one night off, then doing so is no longer a competitive liability.
- Coverage: Know your client is taken care of
Another benefit of tackling work-life balance with your team is that you can cover for each other. This addresses the concern that important work will not get done if we take an evening off or turn the phone off during dinner. High performers often feel that they are the only one who can do certain tasks, but the BCG experiment revealed several ways to address this concern. In one case, a team member was covering for a specialist consultant during his evening off. The ‘coverage partner’ could not necessarily do the work of the specialist, but s/he “was responsible for deciding whether the issue could wait until the next day or if not, what needed to be done to satisfy the client. The person who was off could be contacted, but only at a last resort”. Imagine knowing that unless you get an emergency call, your team’s got your back, and your client is taken care of – now that’s a night off!
But what about performance?
Despite these positives, it’s tempting to wonder how improved work-life balance impacts the bottom line. Yes, people might be more ‘balanced,’ but are they still performing well?
After four years of running the team experiments, BCG found that the teams that embraced the system outperformed all other teams. The CEO, Hans-Paul Burkner, stated that the process “has proven not only to enhance work-life balance, making careers much more sustainable, but also to improve client value delivery, consultant development, business services team effectiveness, and overall case experience”.
Feeling a little bit of hope? What if you could have work-life balance while keeping your hard-earned reputation, staying competitive for leadership positions, and delivering high value to your clients? Apparently, it’s possible – with one prerequisite – you will need your team to live the dream.