Fika: The case for having coffee breaks together

This week, one of the doctors at my wife’s GP practice has suggested that they all take a coffee break at the same time each day. Well on the one hand that sounds very pleasant and sociable, but on the other hand, they all have an enormous list of patients wanting to be seen, plus a pile of prescriptions to sign, lab results to read and interpret, and a business to run. How could these busy people ever persuade themselves to make time for having coffee together each day?

It reminded me of some research published in the Harvard Business Review by Sandy Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics laboratory. I did also look at the academic paper underneath the journalism, and I’ve blogged before some of his ideas about Social Physics – the flow of ideas and knowledge within teams.

Plus I discovered the meaning of the word Fika.

Patterns of communication are significant for success

In a study in a call centre at the Bank of America, they found “patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”

Having coffee breaks together is particularly important

To test this, they reorganised the coffee breaks so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. This is not how it’s normally done in call centres! And the results were that Average Handling Time reduced by 8-20%, and employee satisfaction rose by up to 10%. The Bank of America swiftly introduced this into all its call centres, quoting a $15m increase in productivity.

Using Bluetooth data collection badges they were able to show the importance of five factors for successful teams:

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. The data reveals that making the tables in the company’s lunchroom longer, so that strangers sat together, had a huge impact.

Having breaks earlier in the day seems to have more of an effect than later in the day.

It doesn’t matter what you talk about, so long as it is face to face

One of the major discoveries is that, at work, the quality of social interaction can be measured independently of its verbal content. The main thing is that, whatever you’re talking about, you’re talking face to face. (The sociometric badges perceive face-to-face talk with tiny infrared sensors, which can tell when two badges are facing each other.) Pentland’s theory is that in person people use all sorts of non-verbal or meta-verbal cues—looking, interrupting, turn-taking, vocal tone, and so on—to establish hierarchies, come to decisions, and generally get in sync. Pentland calls these unconscious actions “honest signals,” because they are hard to fake, and because they reveal the unfakeable: strong emotions, personal affinities, power relations. As he sees it, every workplace conversation is actually a negotiation about our workplace roles. (see the New Yorker review of the Social Physics book)

Emails, instant messages and social media don’t allow those honest signals to happen.

There are other benefits

Other research suggests that coffee breaks help the individuals too

  • Keep people focused: A 2011 study in the journal Cognition found that brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to concentrate.
  • Relieve stress: A study in Symbolic Reaction found that having coffee breaks with coworkers helped a group of Denmark employees cope after a large-scale merger.
  • Recharge your energy: The Energy Project, a New York City-based productivity consulting firm, found that without any downtime, people are less efficient, make more mistakes, and are less engaged in what they’re doing.
  • Coffee itself is a stimulant


So what is Fika (fay-ee-KA)? Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. It’s about sitting down with co-workers and taking a break from what you are doing in a sociable way. And it is full of benefits.

I’m totally convinced. The only problem is… I don’t drink coffee. And I work from home, so who should I drink it with?


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