Business Brains

Put down that smartphone, it could help your business

Posting in Technology

An upcoming Harvard Business School book advocates the notion of disconnecting from email and voicemail at least one night per week.

OK, I will admit it. I sleep with my smartphone on my antique nightstand, an odd juxtaposition and one that my husband teases me about at least once per week.

Here's the thing, I am sure that many of the information workers and professionals reading this article right now do the same. That habit of being perpetually tethered to our email and work life, however, could be working to our collective detriment by setting unrealistic performance expectations that are a recipe for burnout, according to research conducted by a Harvard Business School professor, Leslie Perlow.

Perlow's research, which started out as a project with management consulting firm the Boston Consulting Group, is the subject of an upcoming book, "Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work." (The book is due out in May.)

Perlow was concerned with studying the impact of an always-on culture, one exacerbated by smartphones and mobile devices, on long-term productivity.

Her experiment involved studying the impact of mandating time off, discouraging consultants from checking email or voicemail. For at least one night per week, Perlow's research subjects were prohibited from monitoring work. The experiment was carried out over four years, and it is described in a 2009 Perlow article from the Harvard Business Review.

Her revelations were simple but profound: Over time, as work-life balance improved, the consultants who focused on disconnecting from their jobs were generally more productive.

For example, 78 percent of the research subjects who agreed to Perlow's policy of staying off a smartphone at least one night per week said they "feel satisfied" with their job; that compares with only 49 percent of those who chose to ignore the policy.

Perlow writes that working faster becomes a self-perpetuating habit, even if it isn't actually required for the work at hand:

"When people are 'always on,' responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners, and even institutionalized in performance metrics. There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness; to the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better. Yet, what we discovered is that the cycle of 24/7 responsiveness can be broken if people collectively challenge the mind-set."

There are probably some managers groaning at this point as they read this, because they are charged with inspiring every higher productivity metrics from their employees. But the saturation level of smartphones -- 62 percent of people between the age of 25 and 34 own one -- makes this an increasingly relevant topic for those of who want to keep employees motivated, while reducing the potential for burnout.

Smartphones and tablet computers are making it possible for employees to work pretty much any time of day, whether or not they are on the clock.

Perlow's research suggests, however, that the key to future productivity gains won't lie in encouraging people to work longer hours it will hinge on enabling them to work smarter during the hours they are truly "on."

Do yourself a favor, try shutting off your access to email and voicemail one night per week for starters. I'll bet the world won't end and it might even you to dream strategically about your business, instead of responding reflexively to the latest incoming message.

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(Apple iPhone 4s image courtesy of Apple)

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure