The Power of Coffee Break Conversation at Work
The importance of team coffee breaks and chit-chat for creativity and inspiration at work and beyond.
“What’s mascara in Portuguese?”
“What — like, as in Rimmel the cosmetics brand?”
“I don’t know.”
Thus began our Google search for which came first — the Portuguese word rímel or the cosmetics brand Rimmel. And what did we discover? That Eugène Rimmel, founder of the cosmetics House of Rimmel in 1834, invented mascara. So, the Portuguese word for mascara came from the inventor’s name (portuguesified, but recognisable all the same).
For someone who works with words, this discovery was a wonderful, unexpected gem. One for the notebook. And, how did it happen? It happened as a result of chit-chat with the girls at the office. And, this is not the only gem that’s resulted from office chit-chat and coffee break banter with my office colleagues.
The rat race goes remote
Over the last year, you’ve undoubtedly had a taste of working remotely.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the work-from-home model onto most companies and workers as governments around the world introduced lockdown measures in an attempt to break the chain of transmission.
There are a lot of good reasons for remote work to be an internationally accepted norm. For companies, it allows for the option of minimising overhead in terms of office space rental as well as being able to extend the search for talented employees beyond city limits and country borders. For workers, it allows for the opportunity to live where and how you want and still have the job of your dreams.
However, remote work has its drawbacks. As with everything in life, it’s got its pros and its cons. And one of the cons is being on your own when you take a break from work.
I’ve spent most of my career as a freelancer without an office basecamp. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve always enjoyed the freedom — which is why, when I got my first taste of office-based work in 2019/2020, I wasn’t sure it was for me. But, there are definite perks and they come from unexpected parts of the workday routine.
Take a break, together
I read a post on LinkedIn (I tried desperately to find it again, but to no avail — sorry!) which talked about how the coffee break is an important element of the workday which should be maintained for teams working remotely. It got me thinking about the impromptu conversations that take place in the office and how much we, as a team and as individuals, gain from them.
These moments, where we talk and laugh and let our minds wander, are sparks — sparks of creativity and inspiration. Breaks with others help us relax and they often help us find new ways to approach our work, inspired by our interactions. It is the collaborative spirit at work and yielding results.
So much of the work I’ve done over the last year has been spurred on by the collaboration of my colleagues who, in unexpected moments of frivolity, have inspired me to new perspectives or helped me make fresh connections.
Is this benefit industry-specific? I’m not sure. It may be important to note that my team and I work in the communication industry which requires daily creativity and fresh ideas. We also work on a wide variety of projects whose content ranges from social media content strategy for small businesses to international consultancies focusing on refugees and the preservation of culture. We have to shift gears often, moving from academic language to informal audience-specific language from moment to moment.
And surprisingly, what helps keep the energy up and the inspiration flowing is coffee-break chatting — the impromptu content of free time. I would venture that this is true for all teams — we are social creatures after all.
For my writing, these moments have sparked a lot of ideas and led to thinking about a lot of interesting things that I would not have come to without them. This has been a completely new experience as a seasoned remote-er and I’m reluctant to give it up as I retreat to my home for another pandemic-imposed lockdown.
So, what can we do?
Whether you’re the head of a remote team or a remote team member, I think it’s important to prioritise time spent with colleagues chatting about non-work related things during the workday.
I’ve seen lots of articles about setting up virtual spaces and times for remote coffee or lunch breaks — this is a great idea.
I think it’s key to set up this virtual space and time to reoccur daily, without scheduling and cancellations — every day, same time, same place. I also think it’s important not to make it compulsory or require anyone to sign up to be there. Just let everyone know it’s there, every day, and that it’s not a work meeting but free time to chat and connect. Encourage everyone to join as often (or as little) as they want. Let it be fun, light, and as organic a moment as it is in the office break room.
If you’re not part of a team, why not set up a virtual coffee break for independent freelancers and solopreneurs? (Invite me if you do, please.) Or, if you have a social platform with access to professionals going it alone, think about using it to bring them together in a virtual coffee room. We all need colleague coffee breaks.
While I’m sure many will return to in-person work post-pandemic, remote is here to stay. With that in mind, I think it’s worth it to try to implement practices that allow us to harness the best of both worlds, especially right now.
Fancy a virtual cuppa?
[Update — 31/03/2021]
This morning I listened to Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast — the episode with Priya Parker on The Art of Gathering — and I felt it was important to add this podcast episode and book recommendation to this post because what I suggest by creating a virtual coffee room really needs The Art of Gathering approach to be meaningful and successful. In fact, all gatherings of all kinds need this approach. Listen to the podcast or read Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering.