Reading the title of this blog article, you might be thinking, “Hey buddy, coffee breaks do NOT need defending!” And on the surface, perhaps they don’t seem to—caffeine, relaxation, idle chatter with coworkers; what’s not to love? Yet there have been signs of late that this longtime pillar of workplace equanimity is losing favor with employees. Today many of us may be more inclined to spend our weekday downtime running errands or catching up on Facebook than sitting with a cuppa in the break room. I think in some ways this trend is hurting both workers and organizations. Time we spend “liking” our friends’ photos of puppies or languishing in line at the DMV is time that could be contributing to increased productivity and innovation. I’ve learned this through personal experience, and it’s also a lesson borne out by anecdotal evidence, as well as scientific research.
What has social media done to the coffee break? As a young professional, I feel fairly comfortable with new technologies and most of the major social media platforms, but I can remember a time when Twitter was just something that birds did when you were trying to sleep in on a Saturday morning. It was around that time that I was first exposed to the concept of the coffee break on television. Every sitcom that had a workplace had a coffee break—at least once. As a rascally teenager, my favorite show was News Radio, an office sitcom rife with coffee breaks. Interestingly, television’s workplaces of today—The Office comes to mind—are still fairly littered with coffee breaks, even while fewer employees in the real world practice the ceremony of breaking for coffee and small talk. A number of sources far more credible than I am have chalked up the trend, in part, to the proliferation of social media as a leisure activity.
Before I continue, I think an editorial “full disclosure” is warranted. While I’m not directly affiliated with any coffee farmers associations, distributors, or chain café conglomerates, I am utterly infatuated with coffee and adore the act of sitting down to a hot cup with friends, coworkers, or John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I’m completely biased and I admit that. However, my assertion that the loss of coffee breaks is harmful to individuals and organizations alike is not insupportable. In order to consider the anecdotal evidence in its proper light, let’s assume that the coffee break is a stand-in or cipher for any social activity completely unrelated to work and one which makes a group of employees happy. For you or your employees, this may be talking a walk with coworkers, sharing some conversation in the park, or jogging with a friend during your lunch break. Disregarding any impact these activities may have relative to the organization’s best interests, these acts are human moments—they allow us to be more completely ourselves during a daily routine that, while fulfilling in its own right and absolutely necessary, places constraints on our most basic, undeniable selves. And by providing us time to simply be, the coffee break and its analogues infuse balance into our days and make long-term job loyalty attainable.
Supporting coffee breaks has additional benefits for the organization. According to a recent study by professors at MIT, employees who engage in frequent face-to-face interactions at work are statistically more productive than those with fewer interactions. And while coffee breaks certainly don’t hold a monopoly on opportunities for social interaction at work, they provide an excellent excuse for some good old fashioned face-to-face interaction in an environment in which it can otherwise be difficult to connect live. With full workloads, looming deadlines, and the nature of deskwork contributing to a sense of physical inertia, we may often opt to email a coworker when questions or input could just as easily be conveyed with a walk down the hallway. The coffee break rewards a bit of mobility and face-to-face interaction, potentially resulting in higher levels of productivity for some employees.
The coffee break may also have the ability to spur innovation in the workplace. Let us consider just a few of the theories or works conceptualized during the act of rest. Portions of Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, for instance, are said to have been developed while Einstein daydreamed at work. Some experts believe Rene Descartes’ early explorations into coordinate geometry were first inspired by his watching a fly cross the ceiling as he lay in bed late one morning. Much later, Poet Samuel Coleridge scrawled down much of the Kubla Khan upon waking from a dream in which he visualized the poem’s language. And that stuff that keeps our feet on the ground—gravity? Legend has it that Isaac Newton first caught on to gravity while drinking tea under the shade of an apple tree. Could the links between rest, recreation, and creativity have implications for non-work-related breaks in the workplace? I believe they do, providing us with the mental “space” necessary to think creatively.
So the next time you see your coworker or direct report thumbing feverishly at their smartphone between tasks, invite them to join you for a cup of coffee. By doing so, you’re taking part in a beautiful ritual as old as work itself. You may even give your productivity a boost in the process. And your coworker’s social news feed? All those inane epigrams and pictures of adorable puppies will be right there waiting for them at the end of the workday.
 Mining Face-To-Face Interaction Networks Using Sociometric Badges: Predicting Productivity In An It Configuration Task; http://vismod.media.mit.edu//tech-reports/TR-622.pdf