I was in a small group talking last night with Professor Leslie Perlow, who teaches at Harvard Business School where her research focus is the micro-dynamics of work. She spends lots of time observing people as they go about their daily work, trying to better understand what really happens at work and what the consequences our "work behaviors" have on the rest of our lives.
Professor Perlow has a new book out, entitled Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work. I am fascinated by her charting the extent to which people's smartphones have become the most important relationship they have, echoing the work of Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together, which I've talked about here on this blog. Perlow's book follows the work she did with Boston Consulting Group, where she began with one team of professionals who adopted her two-sided effort to break the habit of being constantly on, tied to your smartphone.
WIth Perlow's help, the early BCG teams experimented with several different approaches to break the smartphone slavery. That is fascinating in itself. Their goal was to designate one workday night per week that each individual on the team would be totally off from his or her phone, computer, and other tech devices for anything related to work. But here's the part that was the clincher for me: they not only turned off--and kept off--their tech devices, they gathered once a week to talk about it. They had a conversation about how tough it was, what they did instead with that time, how it affected their work.
I'm not doing justice here to the importance of the conversational aspect of the experiment. In fact, it all started with a team-wide discussion of just how they would approach the one night ban and what that turned into was a serious, in depth discussion of how the team would get the work done without the constant access to one another that they had pre-experiment. To their surprise, the one night tech ban did something more than free them up to do other stuff; it made them more productive on the work they were doing despite the fact that they were off limits to one another for a certain period of that work. What happened, as Perlow tells it, is that the weekly conversations led to more productive work planning and execution.
Well, I'll be darned. People talking with each other about their work and how to collaborate more effectively made it possible for them to turn off their smartphones for at least a limited amount of time and--surprise!--get even more work done. What's more, they reported being much more connected to other team members, enjoying their work more, and other side benefits (not to mention the fact that because of the planning ahead, they could buy theatre tickets for their night "off" and know they could show up for the play, or promise to be at their kid's soccer practice and keep the promise.
The BCG experiment has been replicated among BCG teams all over the world. It has become their new mode of teamwork.
Something to talk about. I didn't have a chance to ask Leslie Perlow whether she and Sherry Turkle know one another. Surely, they have lots to talk about.