On Insomnia

Whether it’s due to playing World of Warcraft or the Moose Lodge throwing a party until all hours (don’t laugh–it happens to me), sometimes, just like everyone else, geeks don’t get enough sleep. And, just like everyone else, this often adversely affects their clarity of thinking and judgment.

Unfortunately, as a leader, this often adversely affects the quality of your team’s product or service in turn. How a good leader addresses this issue depends on the circumstances.

When time and situation permit, I’ve been known to send a geek or two home to sleep or get over an illness. I’d always get rather annoyed at anyone who felt the need to come to work sick (unless it was a firm emergency), because the illness would invariably pass to someone else, causing a fun cascade of absences or coughing fits. If the issue is a one-time lack of sleep, I would send the geek home because whatever work he or she would produce would probably have to be re-done the next day, anyhow.

Chronic lack of sleep, however, calls for a different approach. While I was careful to allow my geeks privacy in their personal lives, I always addressed any chronic exhaustion issues. For stress-induced insomnia, I would pressure the geek to take more vacation time or chase him or her out the door after 8 hours of work. I would also examine the geek’s workload to see if I could re-balance tasks or activities in order to ease the stress a bit. For World of Warcraft-type insomnia, a lifestyle-balancing conversation would have to take place. (“I know that this is your hobby, but it is unfortunately affecting your work…”)

For some geeks, however, starting the business day at 8 or 9 in the morning will just be difficult. This is when allowing flex time can help you get the highest quality work out of your geeks. If your company (and project) allows it, allow your geek to shift his or her day by two or three hours–say from starting at 9 to starting at 11, and ending at 7 or 8. If you have team projects to do, establish a 3 or 4 hour block when everyone has to be there (from 11-3 or so) in order to foster teamwork.

Flex time overall leads to happier and more alert geeks who work better and make fewer mistakes. Have I ever told you all about that time when I was working 100-hour weeks and took down the network backbone at noon…?