Over the past 50 years, McLaren has become synonymous, first, with Grand Prix racing and, more recently, its high performance road cars. Now McLaren is a global technology company which applies its insights and data-driven expertise to solve a range of crucial challenges. Some of which are close to home.
Having worked in many different teams at McLaren, one thing I have commonly seen affect human performance across all teams is jet lag.
Not long into my role here, we started to look into work on how sleep modelling was being used to predict how fatigued soldiers would be on the battlefield.
The underlying approach to modelling was interesting and we saw the potential to adapt this to other situations in which getting good sleep was important or difficult.
Working in a highly pressurised environment, such as international business or motor racing, where global travel is a constant, jet lag affects the performance of people across McLaren on a regular basis.
From the McLaren Racing pit crew involved in the high-pressure pit-stops on the track to the engineers in McLaren Applied doing the latest data analysis on a health project - it’s essential that the organisation always performs at its best.
But this issue isn’t distinct to my colleagues here at McLaren. Most of us involved in a global business have at some stage taken a long-haul flight and experienced the effects of jet lag.
In leisure, this is an inconvenience, but in business, this becomes performance-critical.
Long journeys across multiple time zones come with a number of unwelcome side-effects, from being too tired to hold a conversation in the middle of the day, to being unable to get any shut-eye at night.
But why do we experience jet lag?
Jet lag occurs when your body's circadian rhythm is out of sync and needs to re-align itself with a new light-dark schedule and an altered daily routine.
Circadian rhythms are 24-hour variations in body functions controlled by your ‘body clock’.
We understood the problem, but at Applied, that’s never enough for us. We decided to apply our collective knowledge to find a solution.
I worked with my team to build a mathematical model, encapsulated in a software application, of the sleep regulation system and used it to run predictions, to answer multiple ‘what if?’ scenarios.
For example, ‘What time should I schedule my important pitch at a business meeting in Texas the day after I arrive if my flight from Heathrow lasts 10 hours and lands at 15:00?’
To calculate this correctly, we identified there were two key elements we needed in the model.
1. The body clock
Our internal body clock follows a 24-hour cycle that causes alertness to rise throughout the day and drop throughout the evening and overnight. This is the circadian rhythm I mentioned earlier and affects how we perform as humans.
2. The sleep store
Our ‘sleep store’ is how much sleep energy we have stored in our body bank at any given time. Starting high after waking, it gradually depletes throughout the day, replenishing through sleep.
Normally these two components combine to create a level of high alertness during the day, conveniently falling in the evening as we get ready for sleep.
Jet lag, however, causes the circadian rhythm to dip or rise at the wrong time, leading to you falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon meeting or lying wide awake in bed long after the sun has set.
So the team and I delved into the data to understand how this affects people personally.
How to predict in order to improve people's performance
By using the model we’d developed, it was possible to predict the effect a shift in sleep pattern can have on our alertness levels and create an ‘alertness score’.
This score can be used to tell us how you expect to perform on any given day, by forecasting your behaviours.
This could be anything from when to book your next business meeting for that big pitch to when to organise that crucial client dinner which closes the deal.
Where human performance, however, is involved, predictions can only take you so far. As wearable devices become ever more intelligent, sleep monitoring, exposure to light exercise, diet and social interaction will all make it into the equation.
In conclusion, it was great to work with a variety of people on this project. From designers who understood how to convert our research into a tool with which everyone could interact, to software developers who could convert the designs into working code, to the business development team who understood the audience who could benefit from the applications of our work.
And who knows? Thanks to team work like this, by 2025 jet lag may be nothing more than an ironic entry on urbandictionary.com.