Global operations occupational hazard: poor sleep - PART I

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Gianni Giacomelli

Business Leader, Digital Solutions

October 25, 2013 - When was the last time you woke up on the morning of a working day, by yourself and without the help of an alarm clock, and were fresh and rested? “I don't remember,” is the response of most of those who work with globally distributed work forces. This, however, will not be not a generic discussion on how “good sleep is good for you.” Rather, it focuses on a crucial success factor for people who work in global operations, and it is likely one of the most useful articles judging by the tone of the related and informal conversations I have been having with senior executives and professional coaches.

People who run global operations do not sleep like everyone else. They start early, end late, and sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to “check a few things.” This routine is hard, and people don't really enjoy it—but they bear with it and grin. Some actually say, “I don't need that much sleep.” The trouble is, this is statistically unlikely. A very small percentage of working-age adults can perform well with less than 7–8 hours of actual, good sleep (that is, not just getting your back on a mattress to answer the last email), and while many successful people are successful because their battery lasts longer, it is worth determining the ROI of managing your sleep.

The ROI of extra (and better) sleep is likely positive—for your career. The impact of sleep deprivation is similar to narcosis or too much alcohol . . . you don't feel it is that bad, but the people around you do. If you are sleep deprived, your career will suffer. Period. Lack of sleep impacts not only your health (obesity and cardiovascular disease, for example) but also your judgment: you might become overly optimistic and your problem-solving ability—when faced with the need for complex reasoning—might dwindle. Your ability to assimilate new and complicated concepts might be negatively impacted. If you have ten minutes, watch Ted's great recap: Russell Foster: Why do we sleep?

How do we solve for this problem? Some of the advice below is unusual, and no, this is not our grandmother's spiel. 

Let's start geeky. If you're really serious about sleep, try analytics: Plenty of devices can monitor your sleep, enabling you to understand the conditions that help you sleep better. For example, you will see what times of the night provide you with the deepest (most restoring) or REM-type (associated with memory and learning) sleep, which will in turn allow you to obsessively protect these periods. Good obsession to have.

Get your email in check: Email etiquette varies, but the email barrage is particularly problematic when you wake up before dawn and you need to wade through lots of half-baked emails that take double the usual time to get to the bottom of. Ask your team to avoid casually sending emails to you while you are asleep. You don't have the luxury of playing email ping pong until you're clear.

Get global communications right the first time: Use the best tools for collaboration so that you don't need to stay on lengthy calls to painfully discuss the shape of a drawing on a power point page; use virtual white boards, PC-based videoconferences to ensure that the people you are communicating with receive the right emotional message.

Make your mobile your slave, and not vice versa: Use mobile devices better and gain more time, so you don't need to wake up at odd hours—you can monitor things and even see people. You don't need to fire up your PC and conduct half-baked checks in the middle of the night.

Light is the enemy, and light is your friend: Sleep in a dark room. Avoid bright light for at least a half hour before sleeping, including the light from an iPad, TV, or PC. However, do try to get some exposure to direct sunlight before noon, as it helps to adjust your circadian rhythm, helps you sleep more easily, and helps you to recuperate faster from jet lag. 

What you eat and drink impacts how you sleep. Drinking tons of coffee is NOT a sustainable solution for waking up well in the morning. Alcohol before bedtime is NOT a solution for sleeping better. These both alter your wake and sleep patterns, and alcohol degrades the quality of your sleep—you might fall asleep faster, but the benefits of sleep will not be as large. There are similar concerns with food: avoid eating less than two hours before bed time, as peristaltic movements (bowels at digestive play) distract the brain and hamper the descent into deep sleep.

Move: Exercise in the morning, or at least take a brief walk. You can leave your car two blocks away from the office or walk to the next subway or bus station. Do the same when you walk back. This takes a bit more time, clearly. Do not go to the gym late in the evening for cardio, as the heart rate of most people will stay high during the initial phases of sleep (typically the deeper ones), which might disrupt them.

Be boring: Time zones permitting, go to bed and wake up at the same time. Try blocking your calendar so that it is not easy for people to schedule conference calls at silly times.

You can sleep when you travel: Good earplugs and face masks do help. Some people go even further to fight that dreaded red-eye economy flight by taking some extreme measures.

What's a good investment for your career? A good mattress: This is especially true for senior executives, as this is where that extra money can be put to good use.

Indeed, sleep can be a good way to access more global talent. 

Feel free to connect with me on twitter @ggiacomelli.