Making time off predictable – and required

People in professional services (consultants, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers, IT, and the like) simply expect to make work their top priority. They believe an “always on” ethic is essential if they and their firms are to succeed in the global marketplace.

Just look at the numbers: According to a survey we conducted last year, 94 percent of 1,000 such professionals said they put in 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half that group turning in more than 65 hours a week. That doesn’t include the 20 to 25 hours a week most of them spend monitoring their BlackBerrys while outside the office. These individuals further say they almost always respond within an hour of receiving a message from a colleague or a client.

Yet our research over the past four years in several North American offices of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) suggests that it is perfectly possible for consultants and other professionals to 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. Our experiments with time off resulted in more open dialogue among team members, which is valuable in itself. But the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively.

Predictable time off is the name we gave to the designated periods of time that consultants were required to take off. This was in addition to time the consultants took off with the natural ebbs and flows of their work. These predictable periods were established at the start of a project and required individuals to be off completely – no checking of e-mail or voicemail. The concept was so foreign 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.

After we had conducted more than 10 multi-month time-off experiments at BCG, the effects of the recession became sharply apparent. The time pressures on service professionals proved even greater in this period of collapse – a fact borne out in a survey we recently conducted with an additional 250 individuals across professional services firms: 66 percent of respondents reported increased pressure in their work life, and 36 percent reported a significant increase.

When faced with sobering bottom-line effects of the recession, leaders at BCG paused to discuss and reconsider the benefits of implementing predictable time off – and decided to go ahead with this counterintuitive approach to increasing their efficiency and effectiveness. The payoff, they feel, is about far more than individual gains; it’s about preserving a strong, engaged pool of talent and, ultimately, cultivating productive work processes for the long term.

To understand how effective predictable time off can be (in good times and bad), let’s look at the experiments we conducted at BCG.

Read the full story at Harvard Business Review.

Photo: Nicole Honeywill, Unsplash

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