01/17/2015 10:51 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2015

Zeroing in on the 'Work' in 'Work-Life Balance'

In the quest to help employees attain "work-life balance," efforts often focus only on one half of that equation (life), ignoring the other half (work). Certainly it is worthwhile to create flexible work arrangements and ways for employees to carve out time away from work -- something the Boston Consulting Group has done for years. But our firm has also developed a more comprehensive approach to ensuring work-life balance, one that not only protects an employee's personal time but also aims to maximize the rewards from the work itself.

The program is called PTO, which stands for Predictability, Teaming and Open Communication. It was kicked off nearly 10 years ago in partnership with Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow. For over a year, Professor Perlow and her team of trained ethnographers studied BCG, shadowing project teams and individuals wherever they went (including client sites) and taking thousands of pages of notes. The result initially was a program that focused on allowing employees to have more predictability in their demanding work schedules, something that would, in turn, create better balance in their personal lives.

But over time a key truth emerged: increasing the predictability around how we work is just one piece of the puzzle. Equally important to creating a sense of balance and personal satisfaction, we discovered, was improving the quality and the impact of the work and the learning experience itself. That recognition drove an evolution in PTO, drawing on the best of traditional productivity initiatives and work-life balance programs.

The program, while deceptively simple, has transformed the way we work. It has two key components. The first involves establishing a period of time during the week when our consultants are essentially off the grid. This gives employees protected personal time--whether that is for dinner with the family or training for a marathon or taking a cooking class. In addition to creating much-needed personal space, establishing blocks of time when employees are offline also encourages better time management skills and teamwork.

The second component focuses on structured, regular discussions among team members who are working together on a client case. These conversations, covering everything from whether the case is delivering value to the client to how each member of the team is learning and developing, force teams to rethink the way they work to improve productivity. And the time that is freed up through that greater efficiency can be used by team members however they see fit--whether that is to give them more time for their personal life or more time to double down on work that they are excited about.

A BCG consultant from New York City recently shared her reflections on the value of PTO with me, musing that, "At BCG, we have a very high-achieving culture--when asked to accomplish a task, we all want to say 'sure, no problem!' and then knock it out of the park. Though this has many benefits, it also means that we may be reluctant to question or simplify tasks, particularly in pursuit of our own work-life balance. However, this is where PTO can be transformational; it redefines 'achievement' in the eyes of the team. Yes, we have to deliver a great product, but truly high-performing teams deliver great products efficiently, creating the rest periods needed for real creativity and innovative thinking. PTO recasts the problem at hand: not just how do we do the work, but how do we do it in a sustainable way? That's where the magic happens."

I am extremely proud to say this "magic"--the PTO approach--is now firmly embedded as an intrinsic part of BCG culture. And this level of commitment is clearly making a difference: internal surveys show 10 to 50 percent improvements in all elements of job satisfaction at the firm. Turns out that one of the best ways to make employees' personal lives better is to rethink how they work.