By Cotton Delo, contributor
FORTUNE — In the adrenaline-charged world of high finance, napping might seem like the ultimate taboo, perhaps even grounds for dismissal, instead of an acceptable alternative to coffee and five-hour energy drinks for employees seeking a mid-afternoon lift.
But when Manhattan-based private investment fund Kodiak Capital Group began to cover international markets back in January, someone suggested getting a comfortable couch for an office next to the trading bullpen so that employees could take 15 to 20-minute power naps.
“Some guys get to work at 8 [a.m.], work until 5, go to rugby practice until 8, go home, and then they’ll work the Australian market in the middle part of the night and go to sleep,” says Kodiak’s managing partner Ryan Hodson. “Those guys maybe find themselves needing a power nap around 2 in the afternoon.” Hodson estimates that a third of his 15 employees now take a power nap on a regular basis.
Americans are logging longer hours at work than ever before, and there’s some evidence that companies are becoming more lenient — even encouraging — toward at-work napping. According to an employee benefits survey of 600 American companies conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 6% of workplaces had nap rooms in 2011, a slight increase from 5% the previous year. Even more suggestive, a 2011 poll of 1,508 adults by the National Sleep Foundation found that 34% of respondents say their employers allow them to nap at work, and 16% said their employers also have designated napping areas.
While those who doze off at the majority of offices may not have their manager’s blessing, napping is not all that taboo in the tech industry, where startups often need their developers to work long hours but also want to maintain a laid back, anti-corporate culture to attract top talent. And a number of tech giants have also begun to tout their nap-friendliness.
Google’s Mountain View campus has received quite a bit of attention for its “Energy Pods” — futuristic-looking white capsules that rent for $795 a month or sell for $12,985 where nappers can recline out of other people’s sight and set timers to wake themselves up with vibrations and lights.
And Arianna Huffington has publicly plugged the “NapQuest” rooms — also outfitted with Energy Pods — that she had built at the headquarters of the combined AOL (AOL) and Huffington Post in New York. One employee at the New York office who asked not to be identified says that the three new nap rooms are usually occupied, and that Huffington Post editors used to sneak up to the sixth floor of their former office to sleep in the grooves of the windowsill.
Christopher Lindholst, cofounder of MetroNaps, which has been selling Energy Pods since 2006, says his clients — which include Google (goog), AOL Huffington Post Media Group and Cisco (csco) — tend to be “forward-thinking companies” that may already be offering incentives to employees to improve their fitness or eat healthier. But focusing on sleep as a third pillar of health represents a relatively straightforward, short-term way to boost employees’ productivity.
“I could today eat an unhealthy dinner and not go to the gym, but I’ll still be able to go to work tomorrow and perform, but if I don’t get a good night’s sleep and I’m tired tomorrow during the day, my productivity is going to be very low,” says Lindholst.
According to a 2008 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 28% of the 1,000 respondents said sleepiness interferes with their daytime activities at least a few days each month. Kevin Gregory, a scientist at the Silicon Valley-based firm Alertness Solutions – most of whose clients are companies with employees that perform shift work — cited a study he worked on at NASA where pilots on trans-Pacific flights were instructed to nap for 40 minutes. They slept for an average of 26 minutes, which led to 34% improved performance and 54% improved alertness.
Nap rooms have become a more commonplace amenity for companies looking to bill themselves as fun, dynamic places to work. Web retailer Zappos, which offers employee perks like free lunch, free coffee drinks made by baristas, and 100%-paid medical, dental, and vision plans, has a nap room at its headquarters in Henderson, Nev., down the hall from its call center. The company tried out Energy Pods, but employees wanted the couches back, says Jamie Naughton, Zappos’s “Speaker of the House,” the executive charged with managing Zappos’s culture
In about 18 months, the company will move its 1,200 local employees to Las Vegas’s City Hall building, and it’s currently deciding whether it will turn the defunct jail cells in the basement into a nap room, a bar, or something else entirely.
While companies committed to creating an attractive work culture may embrace nap rooms, it’s unclear whether it will catch on in the more traditional corners of the corporate world. Bill Anthony, a psychology professor at Boston University and co-author of The Art of Napping at Work, thinks that the popularity of company nap rooms often goes hand-in-hand with economic conditions.
“When the dot-com bubble deflated, I would say that the perk of napping at work retreated along with the economy,” he says. “When people are getting more perks and more benefits and are being sought after and the economy is booming, then employers seem to think napping is okay.”
Eric Abrahamson, a Columbia Business School professor who studies management techniques, agrees that companies tend to offer fewer perks in a down economy when job seekers are plentiful, but notes that affluent firms chasing scarce talent — in both strong and weak economies — are more likely to throw in bells and whistles. That’s when napping could be embraced.
“They have to do all kinds of nice things inside the firm to make it enticing to work there,” he says.
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