BUSINESS

How To Stop Working All The Time And Get More Done

06/22/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The always-on, sleep-with-your-smartphone ethic is so pervasive that last week Goldman Sachs actually had to explicitly forbid interns from working all night long. Two years ago it gave its analysts the privilege of taking Saturdays off.

Surface moves like this, while laudable in intent, will do little to change the culture at elite, high-paying firms where the "best" workers put in absurdly long hours and are always available. Obsessive overachievers who are consistently rewarded for working a lot will just figure out workarounds.

"The intent is right but it doesn't work. It's a bit like saying you want to control the weather by telling the thermometer, 'don't go over 80 degrees,'" said Grant Freeland, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, which over the past few years has actually figured out a way for employees to work fewer hours -- not by using a blunt hammer like a work ban but by deeply examining how people work and facilitating conversations about how to do it better.

Before I tell you how the Boston Consulting Group did it, you might be thinking: Who cares? These are the country's most well-paid workers -- total compensation for an entry-level consultant can reach six figures -- so why not let them work as much as they want?

But we can't just ignore this: Consultants and bankers set cultural norms in the business world. They work with a range of other companies. Their values spread. Recall that hard-charging investment bankers helped create "CrackBerry" culture, fueling the dawn of smartphone addiction for everyone. Basically, investment bankers are part of the reason your boss can email you at midnight.

The idea of rational work schedules is also of significance to a growing army of hourly workers who don't have predictable hours and whose managers and managers' managers don't seem to care. These people are not well-paid and can't afford round-the-clock childcare to accommodate their unpredictable schedules. Perhaps if corporate culture were to change at the upper-income levels, that change would spread, as well?

Boston Consulting started to change its ways more than a decade ago, when it began a research experiment with Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. She was interested in finding out if work-life balance was even possible for the kind of overachievers who go into professions like consulting and investment banking -- Type As who need to be told not to work at 3 a.m.

Perlow and a team of researchers studied the Boston office of Boston Consulting for a year to figure out what kinds of work-life issues were making people miserable. She came back with a theory about how to get consultants to work less: Give them predictable time off. (Banning work in the middle of the night so they can sleep doesn't count.)

This was a radical theory to consultants. "They thought we were crazy. It was really hard for them," said Freeland, who worked with Perlow. "They cheated."

But after about five months, the consultants started to like this new world. They actually restructured the way they worked in order to make getting predictable time off possible. And that doesn't always mean one night off a week -- it could be an accommodation for a personal event like a child's recital.

They created processes that led to more productivity -- sharing responsibilities for certain aspects of a project, for example, so they could cover for each other. They also dropped work that was redundant or unnecessary.

In order to have a productive team where everyone gets a night off, they had to talk to each other a lot -- about how to work smarter and, crucially, about their personal lives.

"It was helpful to know that the reason the partner missed a meeting was that he was taking his daughter on a college tour," one consultant said, according to a piece that Perlow wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "I had never heard a partner talk like that before. My work is really important to me, too, but it is not the most important thing in my life. [His openness] made me comfortable to admit that."

The group's experiment was a success. Consultants rated themselves as more productive and they were doing less work. Fewer consultants quit the firm -- there was less burnout.

Boston Consulting has since expanded the project and now just about all of its 6,000 consultants participate in what they call PTO, or Predictability, Teaming and Open Communication.

Notably, Boston Consulting ties succeeding in this program to advancing within the firm: "If you want to be promoted, you have to have good upward feedback on this," Freeland said.

So far, though, not a lot of other companies have gotten the message on this.

"Occasionally, I will get calls from other firms to come and talk about this. The problem is: You talk to them and they're like, 'we'll stop working at midnight,'" Freeland said. "So I get kind of frustrated."

Goldman Sachs is obviously filled with smart people so it's certainly possible they'll figure out how to do more. A spokesman for the firm told The Huffington Post last week that the recent move is part of an ongoing process to improve the work experience of its junior bankers. The firm is also experimenting with new kinds of software to improve productivity, according to The New York Times.

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