How important is a predictable work schedule?
by Open Work
Boston Consulting Group implemented a program — unique in the high-pressure world of consulting — that has led to improved work-life balance and decreased turnover.
In professional consulting, working long hours comes with the career. Yet, in a field where an 80-hour work week is commonplace, so is employee burnout. And when workers burn out, they often eventually opt to leave those jobs in search of something less stressful.
This was the trend at the Boston Consulting Group, one of the largest and most reputable strategy consulting firms in the world, which boasts more than 10,000 employees in approximately 50 countries. Like many consulting companies, BCG had trouble retaining talented workers due to a high rate of burnout among its staff. This remained a problem despite BCG offering their consultants attractive features in their benefits package such as generous vacation time, opportunities to take an unpaid leave of absence and even sabbaticals for longtime workers.
Things changed for the better in 2005, when Harvard Business School professor and business ethnographer Leslie Perlow approached BCG’s partner and managing director Debbie Lovich with a proposal to study the role in order to identify sources of stress and burnout and experiment with options to make it more sustainable.
“I was a consultant myself at a different firm before I went to graduate school, and I had always been deeply curious about the possibility of creating change in consulting,” says Perlow.
What Perlow discovered at BCG was surprising. It wasn’t so much the long hours that contributed to employee burnout, but the unpredictability of their daily and weekly work schedules. Most consultants at BCG had no idea how long they would be working any given day and had trouble determining when it was OK for them to unplug. Some consultants even reported staying home during their vacations and constantly checking their phones and work emails during the evenings and weekends to see if they were needed for work.
“It turns out predictability is a big issue in professional services, but at the time we did the research that was not well known,” says Perlow.
As a result of this research, Lovich partnered with Perlow to develop a new program at BCG that actively addressed the issue of lack of predictability, which became branded as “PTO.” Originally, PTO stood for “predictable time off,” but eventually evolved into “predictability, teaming, and open communications.” As part of the program, consulting teams — which generally range from six to 12 people for each new project for a period that can last several weeks to several months — openly communicate their individual scheduling expectations prior to the project’s onset, as well as check in with each other regularly.
The goal of PTO is not necessarily decreasing work hours or guaranteeing a set amount time off, but enabling a collaborative effort among BCG employees participating in team projects in order to achieve a more sustainable work-life balance. This includes empowering consultants to advocate for themselves.
“[W]hile the predictable time off was certainly the initial lever to drive us to rethink the work, we found that the open communication was equally as important,” says Lovich, who notes that previously, junior staff were often hesitant to vocalize concerns about the scheduling demands of their jobs.
Lovich piloted the program with her own team. Then another team was added, followed by three teams and then another 10, until it organically spread at a viral rate throughout the nearly 90 offices BCG currently has worldwide. Currently, there are facilitators across BCG offering PTO to the majority of consultants. As part of the PTO framework, each team member is allowed to have planned time off each week to completely unplug and recharge. While this might include taking specific time during the traditional workday to attend to personal needs or errands, a team often offers predictability by normalizing healthier work schedules overall for the entire team. This might include aligning on a daily end-of-day when employees are expected to stop working, or maintaining weekends as free time to devote to recreation and recuperation rather than work. It might even be empowering consultants who travel a lot to exercise greater autonomy in proposing their travel schedule that better accommodate their personal sleep requirements and family demands.
One aspect that is crucial to the success of the PTO program is the role of the facilitator, who acts as both a coach and conflict mediator for their assigned team. Facilitators are scouted out by senior staff at BCG; they choose employees who exhibit certain key traits such as high emotional intelligence, exceptional interpersonal skills and a knack for management.
“I like getting to see and experience different management styles and how each facilitator mentors their teams,” says 31-year-old Cara Lodigiani, who has been at BCG for nearly two years and recently served as a facilitator.
When it comes to utilizing the PTO method, Lodigiani believes it helps contribute to setting more realistic expectations for everyone on the team and making the scheduling process less harrowing and more transparent for the team members. “It does make a tough job easier,” she says.
Since facilitators work with teams to set certain standards — “team norms” — that help establish and maintain more sustainable work habits throughout the course of the project, their influence is vital to the success of PTO.
“I feel much more comfortable closing my computer on a Friday evening and not opening it again until Monday,” explains Joe Martin, another former facilitator. As Martin explains, when he established that as the norm, it was easier for the team to follow suit.
So, how successful overall has the PTO formula been at helping prevent burnout at BCG?
Katherine Rivet, PTO Regional Manager at BCG’s Boston office, notes that consultants that are part of PTO teams are between 75 and 85 percent more likely to stay at BCG for the long-term. “Consultants on PTO cases feel more able to manage a high-intensity, high-growth career,” says Rivet. “It makes people more productive and more satisfied.”