The Office Intervention

This employee needs work-life balance

The always-on style of work doesn’t work, but you may need a little shock therapy to believe it. 

By Joe Robinson

Sometimes the counterproductive behaviors can get so out of hand there's only one recourse left: an office intervention. Enter Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor of leadership armed with an eagle eye for counterproductive work styles.

"Most of us are ‘successaholics.' That's what we think is necessary for our organization to succeed," says Perlow, author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone and a researcher whose experiments in corporate America have shaken up notions about productivity in the always-on workplace. "If you try to do things differently, you will find it incredibly valuable. It's rallying together to recognize that if we continue to work in this way, it's undermining our productivity, our sustainability, our creativity."

As with any intervention, Perlow's subjects know there's something wrong, but they're usually reluctant to budge from their self-inflicted pain. It took her six months to find a team at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) that would allow her to run an experiment that would challenge the long-standing assumption that 24/7 availability was essential to success. Half the executives in a survey she conducted worked more than 65 hours a week, not counting some 20 hours spent monitoring their smartphones. She wanted to see what would happen if BCG consultants—gulp!—took a full night off per week.

Despite the initial angst set off by the strategy—a concept she called "Predictable Time Off" (PTO)—it turned out to be a big hit. Productivity didn't drop; rather, it increased, as team members were forced to improve coordination.

"It unleashes an incredibly powerful process for these teams," Perlow says. "They were planning better, prioritizing better, delivering better products to their clients. In the meantime they had more predictability and control of their lives."

BCG was so impressed that PTO is now a companywide initiative, in place in 32 offices in 14 countries.

Perlow has been driven since her college days by the belief that it's possible to be successful professionally but also have a personal life. After a stint in management consulting, she went back to grad school thinking there had to be a better way. Her big revelation came while doing research on software engineers in China, India and Hungary. Some work styles were more flexible than others. "That made me realize it can be different," she says.

Unquestioned beliefs, such as "I always have to be available to the client" or "I can't take time off," run a "cycle of responsiveness" that traps us, she argues. "There's an underlying expectation that more is better. With the smartphone, we get sucked into the benefits without realizing the costs of always being on. We have systems that are set up to need you all the time. Does it have to be urgent if you thought about it differently? And what we find is the answer is no."

This is especially true for entrepreneurs, who truly are on all the time. "Entrepreneurs haven't really put in the time to think about their work practices and planning and prioritizing," she contends.

Perlow comes into companies as an ethnographer, observing work practices for several months before identifying the ways an organization can change its practices to benefit both the firm's productivity and the workers' personal lives. At a software company rife with chronic night and weekend overtime, she realized that engineers were pulling all-nighters because they were being interrupted frequently and couldn't concentrate during normal work hours. Her intervention, "Quiet Time," divided the day into periods in which everyone agreed not to interrupt each other. With the space to think, formerly harried engineers were able to pull off the first on-time launch in their division's history.

Such changes can be a little squirmy initially. "It's incredibly anxiety-provoking to turn off when you're not used to turning off," Perlow says.

Entrepreneur, February 2013 (c) Joe Robinson 2013

Tags: increase productivity, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, Leslie Perlow

Multitasking = Multiple Choice

First the tooth fairy, now multitasking. Cognitive scientist David Meyer unmasks the illusion behind the counterproductive habit of multitasking.

By Joe Robinson

It's the gospel of productivity in a maxed-out world: Multitasking helps you get more done faster. The only thing is, it doesn't, says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan--where he serves as director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory--and one of the country's leading experts on multitasking.

"When you perform multiple tasks that each require some of the same channels of processing, conflicts will arise between the tasks, and you're going to have to pick and choose which task you're going to focus on and devote a channel of processing to it," he explains.

Meyer has been at the forefront of research for several decades on how the brain processes information and copes with multitasking. He has investigated the brain's speed, accuracy and memory in information processing while working with psychologist David Kieras for the Office of Naval Research. A study Meyer co-wrote on the limitations of multitasking ("Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching") went viral in 2001, setting off the first awareness of the counterproductivity of simultaneous activities.

Meyer's work has helped demonstrate that humans have distinct bandwidth challenges, which can make multitasking problematic. It turns out the brain's ability to process information is limited in a variety of ways -- from processing channels to limits on data volume, velocity and working memory -- that confound true, simultaneous task actions.

Counter to common belief, you can't do two cognitively complicated tasks at once, Meyer says. When you're on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you're actually switching back and forth between them, since there's only one mental and neural channel through which language flows. "If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," he says.

That's heresy in a time-urgent world with the attention span of a macaque on crack. Meyer admits that multitasking is not only getting more prevalent, but it's also "very often highly inefficient and can be dangerous to your health." Even the most adept multitasker will "crash and burn" trying to resolve simultaneous conflicting demands, Meyer says. That means you could wind up sending the wrong e-mail; blow an account; have a "brownout," in which too much access to the cerebral grid shuts down critical thinking; or worse, find yourself in a truly hazardous situation, such as driving while using a cell phone.

"When you're driving, you have to use the language channel to talk, read signs, plan your next move. If you're trying to have a cell phone conversation while you're doing that, either the phone conversation will suffer or the driving," Meyer says.

He points to the growing number of auto accidents caused by businesspeople sending work texts from behind the wheel. The conflicts triggered by incessant multitasking can set off chronic stress and slow you down, shredding productivity. In fact, trying to complete two or more tasks at once can take 50 percent more time or longer, depending on the complexity of the tasks, Meyer says.

The good news is that there is hope for the attention-span-challenged, in the form of self-regulation through better time management and scheduling. "If you're disciplined enough, you can map out the usage of your time in a way that minimizes your exposure to interruptions," Meyer explains.

Entrepreneurs are some of the most compulsive multitaskers--"macho master multitaskers," as Meyer puts it -- but he says you'd be wise to cool the scatterbrain jets and focus.

"If you want to be a creative entrepreneur, you ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think," he says. "Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity."

(c) Joe Robinson 2012   From Entrepreneur, December, 2012

Tags: multitasking, information overload, technology addiction, increase productivity

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Joe Robinson, articles on work-life blance and stress

The E-Tool Bill of Rights

Article 1: Any email longer than two paragraphs shall not be sent. Instead, time shall be saved by telephone contact.

Article 2: Every person shall practice the 100-Foot Rule, getting up from their posteriors to deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of their desk.

Article 3: The overloaded in-boxer shall check messages at designated times to prevent attention deficit.

Article 4: There shall be a requirement of determining urgency before response to messaging.

Article 5: No book-length thread E-mails, or dispatches as long as "War and Peace" shall be allowed.

Article 6: Companies shall establish policies to control e-transmissions as if they were emissions.

Article 7: Everyone shall resist the temptation to send one- and two-word responses, such "thanks," "got it."

Article 8: There shall be no assumption of unlimited e-access simply because the tools allow it. Message management shall be instituted.

Article 9: Permission shall be granted to use auto-responders to block out focus zones for optimum productivity.

Article 10: E-contact-free zones/days shall be negotiated to improve performance and jump-start innovation.

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