We all know that bees are some of Nature’s best workers! Bees work hard all summer pollinating, gathering nectar, and stockpiling honey. In the winter they remain active but shrink their numbers from about 50,000 bees to 20,000 bees per hive. These buzzworthy creatures eat stockpiled honey for energy and shiver their flight muscles to make heat. They’re so efficient they can keep the queen’s center spot in the hive 94 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long! When you think about it, the typical  “fuel bill” for a hive during a long Minnesota winter hive is about 75 to 100 pounds of honey.

Bees are another great example of how nature runs on cycles. The season of action and hard work generates food for the hive. In the process it’s also responsible for pollinating most of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Much of the global food crop of almonds, peaches, plums, apples, cherries, etc. depends on bee-assisted pollination. That’s why we really need bees to be active and hard working in the summer.

Bees can also teach us about rest and the positive impact it has on the productivity bees have in the summer. There is a season for work and a season for rest. If we don’t see interdependence, we might not connect the need for rest with the level of productivity in bee colonies.

Organizational rest cycles

In human organizations, we don’t “do” rest very well. The prevailing practice is that productivity needs to be high 24/7. The assumption is that people can work non-stop and remain at peak performance. What if this is a myth? What if humans, like bees, need cycles of rest and productivity? If so, how might we structure our organizations to support times of rest?

One impact of technology has been the bleeding of work into evenings and weekends. Have you ever felt that you needed to respond to work emails late at night and on the weekends? Do you know colleagues who do not take vacations as a badge of honor? Do you feel that you take time off and remain caught up with work? If so, you are living in a workplace that assumes it is ok to have you “on-task” all the time, not just during work hours.

Over time this lack of appreciation for rest cycles leads to a degenerating system. It becomes ok to burn out the talent that drives the innovation and productivity of the organization. The assumption is that there are more people out there who can replace the employees we drain along the way. Think about the effect this has on our own economy. The U.S. is currently feeling the impact of a labor shortage that will only get worse over the next 5-10 years. There are cities that have 5,000 open positions currently and the ratio of people seeking work and open positions is going down. This suggests that we might want to rethink the importance of retaining and growing talent in our organizations.

What would a regenerative work environment look like? Regenerative organizations are defined by a level of increased vitality and resilience. These organizations continue to evolve and learn and optimize self-organization in their employees. They use learning to innovate and evolve. Degenerating systems decrease the vitality of the organization over time. Businesses that generate short-term productivity at the expense of long-term results and resilience would be considered degenerative. Businesses that burn out their talent, or cause talent to seek positions elsewhere, also become a degenerating system over time.

Can we learn about rest from bees?

Bees are highly productive and essential to our food production. They remain active, unlike other species that hibernate over the winter, but both bees and bears and other hibernators all optimize the cycle of activity and rest. What would our organizations look like and what would they reward if we became serious about encouraging periods of rest and relaxation in our employees?

Learn more about what bees and other species within nature can teach us about becoming better leaders from Dr. Kathy Allen’s new book, Leading from the Roots.