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HBR: Forced Time Off Improves Employee Productivity

Professional services employees often put in 60 hours a week at the office and spend the rest of their "free" time tethered to work by an umbilical BlackBerry. The recession has only increased the time people feel they must devote to their work.

But an excellent article in the October issue of Harvard Business Review argues that time off and productivity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, managers have a responsibility to make sure their reports are taking time off to recharge their batteries.

The authors studied workers at the Boston Consulting Group and discovered:

  • 94% of 1,000 professionals worked 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half clocking 65 hours or more. In addition, most put in another 20 to 25 hours a week outside the office thumbing their BlackBerrys.
  • This additional time working was not necessary. The employees could meet the highest standards of service and still have planned, uninterrupted time off. "Indeed, we found that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited."
  • Managers must enforce a process for taking time off, encourage discussion about what's working and what isn't, promote experimentation with different ways of working, and secure and publicize top-level support.
At BCG, consultants were required to take "predictable time off" requiring them to shut off voicemail and e-mail. "The concept was so foreign," report Harvard Business School authors Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter, "that we had to practically force some professionals to take their time off, especially when it coincided with periods of peak work intensity. Eventually, however, the consultants came to enjoy and anticipate having predictable time off, particularly as the benefits for their work became evident."

One benefit: Increased communication among team members "sparked new processes that enhanced the teams' ability to work most efficiently and effectively."

Read the HBR article, Making Time Off Predictable--& Required.

To learn how BCG employees reacted to the new rules, many are interviewed in this Wall Street Journal piece, If You Need to Work Better, Maybe Try Working Less.

What do you see in your own office? Are people fried, frazzled and frustrated from the grind? What's being done to lighten their load?

By the way, Perlow, an HBS professor, wrote an earlier piece for HBR titled "Is Silence Killing Your Company. " She argues that companies can't afford to have employees who are reluctant to speak up at work, that too many opportunities are lost. Read an excerpt.

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