more than coffee: finding culture in the break room

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When I worked for a small import and export firm, I’d grown accustomed to our limited office space. Then a new employee was hired. Her first day on the job, she couldn’t hide her shock that we didn’t have a kitchen, or a break room, or even a conference room where we could take a phone call in private.

“Why would we need a kitchen and a conference room? We’re here to work,” the vice-president said.

The new employee was not impressed. I tried to sweeten the deal.

“But…we do have a microwave oven,” I said.

Mentioning short waves of electromagnetic energy did nothing to impress the new employee. Less than a year later, she quit.

About six months after she left, I found myself interviewing for a job at Seattle’s largest coffee retailer. The hiring manager greeted me in the lobby. Then she took me behind the green curtain and gave me a tour.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. Not only were there multiple kitchens on every floor (with several microwaves in each!), there were meeting areas with sofas and over-stuffed chairs where employees seemed to be enjoying conversations. There was a vibe to every floor—one department had repurposed an empty cube and was using it as a “music area,” complete with an old-school record player and hundreds of vinyl records lined up next to it. As we walked by several employees were hanging out, talking, and discussing their favorite music.

Suddenly I understood why my former colleague was not impressed by the solitary microwave that sat next to the copy machine.

With more than 3,000 employees working at the coffee giant’s headquarters, it’s understandable why there was space—and a budget—to incorporate places for employees to congregate and mingle.

Thankfully, I became one of those mingling employees and I enjoyed the kitchens, couches, and microwave ovens for more than a decade. But even more than the multiple microwaves, I enjoyed a work culture which honored my need to connect with other employees…and created an environment with the space for us to do so.

If I had the opportunity to talk to that former VP who dismissed the need for these spaces, I’d tell him that providing employees with space to connect does, in fact, contribute to getting work done. And here’s how:

It creates community.

For more than 10 years, I went to the same kitchen on the 8th floor of that office building and made myself many coffee drinks. On my first day, I didn’t know anyone in the kitchen. Within a month, I had a group of regulars whom I talked with each morning – sometimes we talked about our life outside of work, other times we discussed an upcoming assignment, or scheduled time to meet about a project. Time in the kitchen was also when I had the opportunity to interact with the organization’s leadership.  (They needed coffee and lunch, too, after all.) By the end of my first year, thanks in part to the connections I’d made while making my morning coffee drink(s), I felt like I was part of a community.

It improves productivity.

We’re all human and we all have limits. It’s impossible to focus on work from the time we walk in the door to the time we leave to go home. Rather than forcing employees to leave the building, check Facebook, or play a game on their phone in order to relax, provide a space for employees to decompress inside the four walls of your building. Taking a small break, and having a chance to interact with other employees, makes it possible to return to one’s work feeling refreshed, renewed, and ready to be productive.

It breaks down barriers.

In my experience, silos are part of most organizations. It’s easy to put our heads down, focus on our own projects, and on our department’s strategy, without looking up long enough to understand how our work impacts other people’s work. When you provide places for employees to congregate and talk, you’re taking a step towards breaking down the barriers between work groups. If I want to stop and listen to some Bob Marley on vinyl, and I need to visit another part of the office to do so, I might observe a different aspect of the business that helps me better understand how we’re all working towards the same goal.

So yes, employees do need space to connect. Whether it’s in the kitchen, in a conference room, or across the cube wall, allow employees to engage with each other when the need to converse strikes. While you’re at it, take some time to enjoy some conversations. It does wonders for engagement—yours and everyone else’s, too.

By liz sheffield
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Comments (2)
Cathy j Kreutzberg

I worked for this company from 1984 to 2002. I moved to Washington State and to this day I have never ever worked for or heard of a company that it anywhere near as wonderful as the O.C. Tanner co. Not one company I have worked for has a award for the years you put into a company. Not one of the company’s I have worked for even know your name. I remember Mr. Obert Tanner actually sitting down at our table in the the cafeteria and have a normal every day discussion. He is and always will be my hero. I wish to this day I would have never left,
I miss this company and the people who work there everyday!

April 4, 2016   |   Reply

Engagement among employees is really important and I cannot agree more with every word you’ve written. Having coffee breaks at a coffee table with your co-workers is somewhat one of the little joys you get from an office surrounding.

May 1, 2017   |   Reply
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