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Mats Silvan

At what's supposed to be a romantic dinner, you're distracted by the incoming business messages on your smartphone. At the Little League game, you miss seeing your kid slug a hit to start a rally because you're texting a reply to a question from the boss.

No matter how much you might want to shut off, the sheer ability to be reached 24/7 can make you feel shackled to your smartphone or netbook or laptop, even at the beach or in bed.

"That makes modern office workers feel increasingly overwhelmed, overworked, always interrupted and lacking time to focus," found Harvard Business School leadership professor Leslie Perlow, whose research led to a book: Sleeping with Your Smart Phone.

While employees might find it impossible go cold turkey and ditch their addictive gadgets, in a study Prof. Perlow found a successful strategy to help workers turn off and focus on their personal life in their after-work hours.

The answer can be as simple as giving each team member a predictable night off. She persuaded 10 consulting teams at Boston Consulting Group to agree to cover for each other to allow each of the team members one night each week in which they wouldn't be responsible for fielding calls from work or clients.

The results were stunning. Over the course of three years, employee ratings of their work, as well as their personal lives showed continual improvement.

Before the program, only 43 per cent said they felt they have sufficient control over their work schedule; by the end of three years, that had risen to 59 per cent. The proportion of people who said their work gives them a sense of personal accomplishment rose from 71 per cent to 81 per cent.

The proportion who felt their team is collaborating well also rose significantly: from 39 per cent to 71 per cent. And there were large increases in feelings that colleagues are considerate of their personal time and that their work adds significant value to clients.

"Consulting is an extreme case; if it works there, it will work anywhere," Prof. Perlow said. In consulting and professional services there is an expectation that you must be accessible round the clock to respond to client needs.

In interviews with the consultants, she found that a consistent underlying source of stress was the unpredictability of the demands and the inability to make plans and disengage during their time away from the office.

The experiment started at BCG's Boston office and when she presented the idea there was initially a lot of anxiety, Prof. Perlow said. "People feared missing client requests but just as importantly they worried that they'd be more overloaded on nights they were covering for someone else."

However, the participants found that almost invariably the calls they feared missing were not as urgent as they had believed and once callers understood the night off rule, they sent fewer requests.

The rule was that the backup team member could contact the off duty employee if a request from a client actually required an immediate personal response. "It turned out, 98 per cent of the time they didn't have to," Prof Perlow said.

Prof. Perlow found enthusiasm grew as participants discussed how the experiment was working for them and how they felt during weekly team meetings. "You can't go it alone, it has to be a team effort. But by starting small and regularly reinforcing the advantages, the idea will continue to grow," she said.

The experiment has become self perpetuating and in its fourth year employee ratings of their satisfaction continue to rise, she said. It's now being implemented in all of BCG's operations around the world and similar programs are being rolled out in several other organizations in different industries.

"The real lesson here is that when you combine some predictable time off with a process of discussing the goal, people start working together better because they feel more ownership and more in control of their work and life."

Taming rampant smartphones

  • Raise concerns openly: Call a meeting at which you share your frustration, hopes and fears. If you go first, your peers are much more likely to find the confidence to follow.

  • Get agreement on a goal: It may be shutting off one night a week or one week a month, but make it predictable.

  • Discuss results regularly: Sharing experiences will build trust and clarify what might be done differently.

  • Give the benefit of the doubt: If someone makes an initial mistake handling your messages, don’t over-react; give calm feedback.

  • Don’t cave under pressure: Stick with the process even if work loads escalate or a crisis happens. That’s precisely the time when a predictable break has the most benefit.

  • Share ownership: Look for ways to help others and your managers do their work better. Offering solutions during work hours can reduce demands on your private time.

  • Suggest improvements: Try new ways to get around issues because everyone will benefit from less stress and more productivity as you keep trying.

Tips based on Sleeping With Your Smartphone