Whatever happened to the coffee break? I know of coffee runs, coffee to-go, office coffee, home coffee, artisanal coffee, but what happened to the break? As we’ve shifted between office work, work-from-home, and hybrid work models, many workplaces seem to have lost sight of the social component of coffee. And while it may appear more productive to take your coffee at your desk, a short coffee chat with a coworker can actually produce better work in the long-run.
If coffee breaks are anything like lunch breaks, minimal time away from the desk is no recent phenomenon. According to a 2021 study conducted by OnePoll, “the notion of the lunch break has shifted as younger generations enter the workplace. [They] found American workers 18-44 agreed that taking a full lunch break is not realistic, while workers aged 45+ disagreed.” This points to remote and hybrid work models, which have become the norm for younger generations in the workplace, being linked to anxiety about leaving one's desk. And while remote work is now an international reality, this problem seems particularly pervasive in the U.S.
American culture has long been known for its love of productivity. Productivity has a subtle way of sneaking into our daily practices, edging us to go just a bit faster; do a smidge more work, until we hit our peak efficiency. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with productivity, sometimes it’s better to work slower on something in order to produce a better product and to sustain that quality of work over an extended period of time. Productivity touches each and every aspect of our lives, and coffee culture is no exception. In fact, it was Americans who spawned the idea of coffee to-go in the 1960s: a trend that has since spread globally. In many countries around the world, however, coffee holds a very different meaning.
In 1964, 7-Eleven became the first convenience store to offer fresh coffee in to-go cups
In Sweden, for example, they have a daily practice known as fika, “which roughly translates [to] drinking coffee, munching sweet treats and chatting.” According to the BBC, “Many Swedish firms have mandatory fika breaks [where] employees are given free hot drinks.” Germans practice a similar ritual known as kaffeeklatsch - a domestic tradition of gossiping around mugs of coffee. In Ethiopia, coffee ceremonies are a daily practice among some. These ceremonies involve roasting and brewing raw coffee beans, donning ceremonial garb, and drinking 3 rounds of coffee among friends and family. According to World Hum, “[These] coffee [ceremonies]... [provide] a vehicle to share news, exchange gossip and debate local politics -- each ceremony can take anywhere from half an hour to a few hours to complete!” Italians enjoy espresso chatting with baristas in standing room only cafes. Turks historically have used coffee houses as spaces to share ideas and socialize. Throughout all of these traditions there are two clear throughlines: breaking and socializing.
There are specific supplies used for Ethiopian Coffee Ceremonies, including incense, a jebena (a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot), a mukecha bowl, and a zenezena stick (similar to a mortar and pestle)
Unfortunately, as technology has advanced and multi-tasking has become more prevalent, we’ve lost the “break,” in our coffee breaks. And I’m not referring to your 5 minute walk to the cafe from the office or the 10 second trip from your desk to your coffee pot. I’m referring to cutting out break time in your schedule and using coffee as a means to share that time with coworkers.
As people are returning to the office after long stints of remote work, it’s more important than ever for businesses to push coffee breaks as just that - a break. According to a 2010 study from MIT, the combination of coffee and synchronized breaks among coworkers was “positively related to productivity” and was shown to increase the strength of individual’s social groups. In other words, allowing time in your schedule for casual coffee chats with coworkers can be highly beneficial for workplace culture. And these breaks don’t have to be exclusively in-person either! Virtual coffee chats can also be effective at increasing productivity and social connection. Just try to keep your focus on the call - no peeping at your task list or email inbox!
The next time you’re fixing for your afternoon coffee, try inviting a coworker to break with you (physically or digitally)! No need to run, it’s a coffee break.
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By: Christian Hall