Innovation by the Cup


I don’t drink coffee, but I take my coffee breaks seriously.

Coffee fueled an important span of breakthroughs in human thought, according to Steven Johnson in a popular TED talk.

Johnson posits that English coffeehouses provided the necessary space and stimulant to drive a sustained era of innovations that began in the mid 17th century – a period aptly called the Enlightenment.

Although stories of groundbreaking discoveries often revolve around specific moments of brilliance, Johnson says ideas need space to coalesce, merge, influence each other, and ultimately simmer for a bit in the company of other good ideas. Caffeine doesn’t hurt.

A coffee shop delivers on all these attributes. Coffee is now social shorthand for a productivity break.

“Let’s meet for coffee” has become code for “Let’s talk about work in a location other than work.” Or even, “Let’s hear about the insights of people outside our network without succumbing to an hour-long lunch and wondering if there’s food on our faces.”

Most offices have a coffee pot and filters. The gem of a coffee break lies in the process of acquiring the stuff – walking to the shop, waiting in line, and most important, leaving the office. Plenty of research supports the idea of briefly pausing your work efforts to recharge for the next push.

Some days in our office, we leave the coffee out altogether — fine by me. We walk a lap around the outside of the building to see the sun and stretch our legs. That short break provides a fresh environment for new ideas, allows for a needed break from any computer screens, and energizes us for the afternoon.

The key to a good coffee break lies in the ideas and connections forged over a few cups, regardless of whether you’re drinking them.

  • How do you exchange ideas with colleagues, especially in decentralized organizations?
  • Do you use your lunch break to connect with others?


Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science contained here.

Dustin Renwick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Organizations need a locus of intellectual commerce, an agora, where members can run into each other, where they can find out about what else is going on, and where ideas can just tumble out of people’s heads right into your lap.

During my academic years, I had the opportunity to be affiliated with 12 departments in my field at different schools. The best among them, always had a coffee lounge, with comfy chairs. A dedicated room is not always required. Sometimes even a temporary space can do the trick. When I was an undergrad at McGill, 10:30 and 2:30 were designated as coffee/donut time and all would convene in the vestibule in front of the elevators, when someone came by with a wagon with coffee and donuts/muffins for sale. The two major wings of the building (from which several Nobel-for-Medicine winners, including one of this year’s would spring) housed offices and labs of the two major branches of the department/discipline, and they tended to be their own little micro-universes…until coffee-time. At coffee-time, people in the different subfields would finally meet and gab, some of them being the only time of the day you’d see them emerge from their offices.

Our organization moved last year to a brand new building. We used to be housed in a building with a large main lobby with several businesses, and a food court. You’d run into everyone if your stayed there long enough. Our new building has no food court, no main lobby (still under construction, a year later), and one overpriced coffee place that folks in the management bracket go to. There are people I used to see quite regularly in the old building, and I don’t even know if they still work here anymore.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a space where people converge, or merely make pleasant conversation while passing by, in the presence of a warm beverage.

Dustin Renwick

That’s a great anecdote, Mark. You’re absolutely correct that the beverage/food helps, but the critical piece is really just having the space for spontaneous interactions. Sorry to hear the new building isn’t quite up to par in that regard.