Study Supports More Downtime

People who want to work more efficiently should actually work less, according to the findings of a study released by the Harvard Business Review.

Leslie A. Perlow, a professor of leadership at the Business School and the lead author on the study, worked closely with several offices of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) over the course of four years. The researchers mandated “predictable time off” for employees to determine whether or not change was possible in the “always-on” culture of the American workplace.

Though Perlow said she did not have definite expectations when she launched the study, the results—increased communication among employees, better planning and streamlining of tasks, and in some instances, enhanced customer service—were positive.

“What surprised me was the power of such a small change,” she said. “In order to have predictable nights off, team members had to work together to rethink core assumptions about how they worked.”

While the study demonstrated positive benefits from increased time away from employment, the new approach to work was a difficult transition for some employees.

“Anytime you change an organization and how people do their work, it’s uncomfortable,” said Debbie Lovich, the head of BCG’s consulting staff and head of one of twelve teams of employees observed in the study. “People are used to working in a certain way. With Leslie’s experiment, she asked us really to behave differently and that took a while to get used to.”

The results come as no surprise to proponents of increased time away from employment, such as John de Graaf, national coordinator and founder of Take Back Your Time, an initiative to combat overwork and over-scheduling.

“I am not surprised because it is clear that these kinds of things, periodic breaks, are useful to people’s health and are beneficial to productivity in the long run,” de Graaf said.

He also said that the results of this study may apply to students, too.

“Students at Harvard are preparing for careers in which creativity is essential,” de Graaf said. “They need time to reflect and refocus. Our culture’s constant demand and “now-now” pressures don’t give them these sorts of breaks.”

While Perlow acknowledged that the study’s results could be superficially applied to Harvard students, she said that the greater implications related to how teams can work together more effectively.