Plying Exhaustion: Sleeping Together at Work (Twice)

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night
is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

— John Steinbeck

In the days when companies could still afford to send their employees out of town to engage, free of other demands, in strategic thinking and planning, it wasn’t uncommon for planning sessions to last two days and to include an overnight.

When I’ve designed or facilitated such meetings, that first day would be about uncovering the “current situation” and the call for change — the reasons the strategic planning was needed in the first place. Faint visions of more desirable futures might begin to emerge toward the very end of that first day. However, one certainly couldn’t expect the assembled group to get anywhere near deciding how to move the organization from “here” to there” — to action steps or implementation — by evening.

Between the two days of hard collective thinking, those executives had to sleep. Sleep was perhaps “personal time,” a chance to get away, not only from the hard work of thinking but from the too-well-known voices of colleagues. But that night, a good number of those highly paid workers would no doubt dream about the stuff of the day — the conflicts, the skewed perceptions of reality held by their colleagues, the politics of coaxing a behemoth organization into a new gait.

The second morning was often when collaboration could really take off. Excited by the unfinished, broad-field visioning work of the first day and refreshed by sleep, group members would enter into the second morning’s work with zest and optimism, ready to make their vision whole.

Much has been made through the ages of the power of breaking bread together, of sharing meals; indeed, having meals together is regarded in many cultures as the way to build a sense of commonality prior to reaching important agreements. (If you like, take a look at the story on Nanette Sawyer’s book Hospitality in the November issue of Skin in the Game.)  But we rarely talk of sleeping together with co-workers, except as a euphemism for sexual relationships.

Yet sharing the cycles of energy and exhaustion, giving collective attention with co-workers to those bodily rhythms, is a key factor in building the energy for change in those retreats. The “Design Shops” that master facilitators Matt and Gail Taylor have run, as well as the “Future Search” method developed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, carefully build in sleep time for the socially creative process that’s required.

Weisbord & Janoff even recommend a three-day,  “sleep twice” design for meetings, saying, “It’s not the total hours worked, but the spacing of learning — the ‘soak time’ — that leads us to understand each other’s views, fully accept the high and low points, and do new things together.”

The intimacy of shared exhaustion, a mutual inability to speak or listen any further, makes wholeness of the talking, the advocacy, the standoffs. Sharing the bodily underbelly of conscious, vocal collective presence changes everything once the energetic “professional” self returns, transformed and integrated, in the morning.

What solutions have come to you in sleep or in shared quiet?


Comment from Mary Bast: I once did a retreat for an executive team whose leader wanted to move them from a competitive to a collaborative way of operating. After dinner the first evening of the two-day session, we arranged a volleyball game where, after about a half-hour of casual competitive play, I asked them to get together and figure out how to change the game of volleyball so it was collaborative instead of competitive. At first there were a lot of puzzled looks, but then they got into it. There was a lot of laughter, which was true of the competitive version, as well, but there were no more joking taunts about the “losers.” Instead, their energy went up several notches as they engaged together in a communal effort. This definitely changed our effort for the better on the second day.