THE BLOG
11/20/2013 02:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

How Our Team of Always-on Consultants Learned to Unplug

Like many big professional services firms, we at The Boston Consulting Group had long fought what seemed to be a losing battle against talent burnout.

Knowing full well that people are our most critical assets, we set up what we thought were all of the programs needed to help consultants deal with the stress of working in an intense, always-on culture. We offered sabbaticals, generous vacations and benefits, office retreats, and team-building programs. We allowed people to work part time and shift to jobs requiring minimal travel if they wanted. Despite these efforts, though, many of BCG's best and brightest continued to burn out and leave.

It wasn't until Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow approached us with an interesting proposal eight years ago that we really grasped what was driving top talent away -- and began a radical experiment to improve our work-life balance.

Perlow, a business ethnographer who had once been a consultant herself, suggested she perform an in-depth study of the way we work at BCG. What she found was eye-opening.

The big problem wasn't so much the long hours and incessant travel. Our consultants expected that when they joined BCG. Rather, Perlow discovered, it was the complete lack of predictability or control we had over their daily lives.

When consultants woke up in the morning, they literally had no idea how many hours they would be putting in that day. When Perlow asked them in the morning how long they expected to work that day, they underestimated by up to 30 percent. For data-driven people like us, those numbers really hit us.

This insight suddenly made us notice all of the crazy things our staff were doing that suggested their personal lives had spun out of control. Our consultants were addicted to their Blackberries, compulsively checking for emails while at home or when socializing to see if they were needed; one consultant even told us that he kept his smartphone under his pillow at night turned on to vibrate so he could respond to late emails. Consultants couldn't make or keep a plan. Friends and family gave up trying to see them-especially during the week.

The story of one junior consultant really struck home. She mentioned that she would spend the Christmas holidays with friends, rather than join her parents and siblings on a family trip to South Africa. "I told them not to buy me a ticket because I wasn't sure what project I would be on, and whether I could commit to going with them," she said.

We asked ourselves what was going on. Why were employees allowing themselves to devolve to this point? Nothing in our consultant orientation tells new BCGers they can't schedule holidays with their families, must sleep with their smartphones, or camp out in team rooms in case a partner or client shows up.

Perlow persuaded us that, by addressing the root causes of the problem, we could not only make BCG a better place to work but also enable us to do better work for our clients.

She also persuaded us to launch what, for us, was a daring experiment to restore predictability, and thus address work-life balance. For one time period in middle of each week, every member of one team would completely turn off -- no work, no email, no cellphone contact. He or she had to do something fun and relaxing. They knew that in the off chance their client or teammates needed them, somebody else could cover. For a firm where complete accessibility is the norm, this was a radical and controversial concept.

The results exceeded our expectations. So much so, in fact, that this initiative evolved into a program called PTO, which stands for "predictability, teaming, and open communications," that has now been rolled out to thousands of teams in 72 of BCG's 78 offices around the world.

In a nutshell, PTO works like this: Before each new case team begins a project, members openly discuss how they will do their work and define norms for things like travel, how quickly emails require a response, and how often the team will meet face-to-face. Each member also picks a different time period each week to go completely offline.

This yields several benefits. Consultants are able to make and keep plans during their weekly predictable time off. More importantly, they know that the world will not fall apart if they turn off. Planned time off also forces them to do a better job of planning and prioritizing. They spend less time on lower-value work and develop more innovative and collaborative approaches to problems. Unless they are forced to eliminate some work, that work would simply be done at a different time.

Now eight years into this journey, we believe PTO has made BCGers better consultants. They are better able to speak up and talk constructively about issues that used to be difficult to discuss. They work better as teams. They work more efficiently and effectively. They get more predictable time for themselves, their family and their friends.

To make PTO happen, BCG assigns around 40 of our most talented consultants around the world to facilitate teams through the process. We invest so much because it works. Consultants in PTO teams are both happier and more productive. They are 21 percent more likely than BCGers who aren't yet working in PTO teams to say they are delivering high value for their clients. They are 74 percent more likely to say they want to stay at BCG for the long term.

A better work-life balance, we found, is good for BCG's people and good for our clients. And, of course, it is good for BCG.