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Opinion

To Sleep or Not to Sleep (at Your Desk)—That Is the Question in China

Companies working out of China should adapt to the local work culture instead of trying to impose a foreign one, writes Israeli-born entrepreneur Ami Dror

Ami Dror 16:4926.06.18
It was during my first week as CEO and only non-Chinese member of the team at the Shanghai-based startup I founded, that I noticed something I had never seen before in all my years in the tech industry. As I walked back into the office after my lunch break, I looked around and saw that all of my employees were sleeping. Yes, SLEEPING. At their desks, on the floor, everyone was face down, eyes closed. While locals or those very familiar with Chinese culture may not have been phased by the sight of employees taking a post-lunch nap, I was completely stunned.

 

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Walking slowly to my desk (I did not want to wake my employees), I consulted with my Chinese co-founder Aaron Tian, who smiled and explained that, in China, people are taught from a very early age to take a nap after lunch, and that it is even considered a mandatory activity in school. Taking a nap break during the working day lets employees wake up earlier and work longer hours, he said.
Workers taking a nap at Shanghai-based startup LeapLearner. Photo: Ami Dror Workers taking a nap at Shanghai-based startup LeapLearner. Photo: Ami Dror

 

At first glance, this might seem like a minor moment in the life of a company, but, for me, it was one of great significance. It was in this moment that I decided to adapt to this new work culture and not try to impose a foreign one on my employees, like most international companies have done for the past 20 years. I convinced myself to open my eyes up to new possibilities, which meant allowing my employees to close theirs for their daily afternoon nap. If I wanted to succeed, I had to let go of many of my long-held assumptions about what made for a successful workplace environment and culture.

 

This decision naturally went beyond accepting the afternoon nap. Perhaps the most challenging part for me was hiring people that do not speak English. Managing a company where 80% of your employees cannot understand anything you say is not easy, to say the least, but it begs the question whether they even need to speak English just because their CEO cannot speak Chinese.

 

As I delved further into the world of Chinese tech, I realized that for many, and for Chinese millennials in particular, global innovation centers such as Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv often fail to impress and appear outdated. They look around and wonder where the shared economy companies are—shared bikes, umbrellas and chargers are currently the norms in Shanghai; they enter a restaurant and are genuinely surprised to see a human being waiting to take their order, instead of simply using their phones to order and pay. Almost everything feels slow to them in comparison with what they had become accustomed to back home.

 

 

I then realized that I needed to harness this young, fast-paced, innovative spirit in order to help our company grow. I made it my goal to become an enabler of innovation and give my team the freedom to work at their own pace and in the environment that would suit them best. I wanted my team to use their own best practices without being held back by what to them seemed like outdated tools and what my experiences had led me to believe were the "correct" workplace norms. If that meant taking a nap after lunch or maintaining complete silence in the office, so be it.

 

Nothing about this process was easy and we got off to quite a rough start. Even when we were technically speaking the same language, I often could not fully understand my employees and vice versa. We kept making mistakes and even failed to understand the market. This went on for some time until I discovered the most surprising pattern. When I came back from an international business trip I noticed that things were going much more smoothly in the office. At first, I refused to believe that I was the cause of the problem, but when the same thing happened following my next business trip, I finally got it. Despite my good intentions, I was keeping my team from truly maximizing their exceptional problem-solving abilities. The company truly started to take off, once my employees were given more time to innovate in a way that made sense to them.

 

 

Ami Dror is co-founder and CEO of LeapLearner, a Shanghai-based edtech company. Mr. Dror also co-founded Zaitoun Ventures, a Tel Aviv-based venture capital firm focused on companies that were co-founded by Jewish and Arab entrepreneurs.

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