Benefits of the coffee break

The work day for most companies in Sweden is between 8am to 5pm (9 hours), but they actually only work for 8 hours. The breakdown of a day often looks something like this:

8:00-10:00 am: work
10:00-10:15 am: coffee break
10:15 am-12:00pm: work
12:00-12:30 pm: Lunch
12:30-3:00pm: work
3:00-3:15 pm: coffee break
3:15-5:00pm work

To some this might seem like an odd practice with a coffee break especially at predetermined times. Some questions that tend to pop up are:

  • If they only work 8 hours, how can they stay competitive?
  • If they only need to work 8 hours, why don’t they work from 9am – 5 pm and work while they eat so they can sleep one more hour (or leave one hour early)?

In this post, I am going to try to explain the magic behind the coffee break.

Dual benefits

The many benefits of the coffee break can be grouped in to two categories; Efficiency and Well-being. To understand the dual benefit, it is important to understand we, Swedes, don’t sit in front of our computers/smart phones and drink coffee by ourselves. The coffee break is a social gathering where many employees sit together at the same table, where there is an informal agenda consisting of a mix between work and leisure discussion.

Efficiency benefits

As employees meet for the break they usually have work on top of their mind. This often results in the first part of the break is being dedicated to work discussions. During this initial time you often hear someone asking a work related question or updating someone about their progress. It is kind of a mini-scrum session. Since there are 2 coffee breaks and one lunch break the employees are actually engaging in 3 mini-scrum sessions throughout the day!

The three main efficiency benefits of the coffee break are:

  • Less interruptions in the work day. Since you meet everyone at specific times, you can save up all your questions or comments for the break and don’t need to disturb them during “regular work.”
  • It is an ideal place for knowledge transfer. All your experts are gathered there with junior employees, and if one of the experts receives a question, others are listening in to the conversation and can either learn or add value to the conversation.
  • The brain has a chance to reboot. The break allows employees to gain new energy so when they go back to their “regular work” they can be more efficient.

Well-being

After all the work stuff has been discussed, the conversation naturally slides in to talking about personal life. These conversations can vary a lot, and I think you’d be surprised over the intimacy and details employees know about each other’s lives. The breaks allow you to get to know your coworkers as friends in a similar way as when you grab drinks after work with them. The difference is that everyone has the ability to join the coffee break, while some might not be able to or want to go for a drink after work (family obligations, don’t drink alcohol, etc.).

The benefit of getting to know your coworkers is tremendous. When you understand how they think and what makes them tick, you’ll have greater empathy towards their situation. Imagine this: one of your coworkers always proposes remote testing and you two are supposed to work together in the next project. As always, he proposes remote testing for the project. You on the other hand think it is completely wrong, and in this specific study it is imperative the research is conducted in person. If you don’t know the other person as well, you might present a multitude of arguments for conducting it in person, but your colleague will not budge. What are you to make of this? Is he just an idiot?

If you on the other hand knew this person well, he might have felt comfortable enough to tell you he is afraid of flying (unless you already knew it). With this information, you can tackle the situation in a completely different way. His desire for remote testing has nothing to do with selecting the best methodology, it has to do with his emotions. In this case you might be able to say something like “I think we really need to do in person testing, but I can do the travel and you can support from here” because he felt comfortable enough to share his fears with you knowing they would fall on the ears of a trusted colleague.

When you know someone well, it allows you both to have more open conversations, which will help you understand each other from the other’s perspective, and allows you to emphasize with each other. This in turn will build trust, which produces more open conversations, and the prosperous circle continuous. This prosperous circle will often lead to strong relationships that becomes close friendships.

In addition to getting to know each other better, the coffee breaks also help new employees become a part of the group. During the break, new employees can sit and listen to the conversation between others in the group and thereby get to know more about them without having to interview every person.

Social interactions are linked to happiness, in turn, producing another benefit. Thereby, the coffee breaks actually help you in foster a happier work place where employees want to work.

Efficiency from well-being

There are also efficiency benefits that stems from the social side of the coffee break. The first one is the increased productivity in teams. If the employees already know each other (even if they have never worked together on a project), they will have moved further along in the stages of team formation and might be able to go through the storming process faster.

Employee retention is another efficiency benefit of the coffee breaks that stems from the social aspect. Employees that wake up in the morning and are excited about going to work, because it includes that element of fun and they get to see colleagues they regard as friends, are less likely to leave the company.

Conclusion

The coffee break, if done correctly, increases both efficiency and well-being for employees. The reason for the efficiency benefits is that the employees can work 8 hours productively without being interrupted, but can still get questions answered by the experts and learn from their peers and leaders. In addition, the social benefits also influence the efficiency.

So why don’t employees just work through the lunch and the coffee breaks and finish one hour earlier? It is because of the social aspect of it. Humans want personal contact and we want connections with each other. Of course, there are some people that will prefer to work over the breaks, but the vast majority will want to join if they notice the camaraderie that comes from the breaks– everyone else laughing together and having fun can be a huge motivator for the team.

I hope more companies embrace the coffee break as something beneficial that will enhance their organizations performance and employee morale.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

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