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Most Productive Part of the Day: The Coffee Break?

One quality that made my old project manager both successful and likable was his ability to bring colleagues together to take a break. As a smoker and a Caribou/Starbucks coffee-drinker, my manager, “Roger,” took a few breaks throughout the day. Of course, I’d often join in, but less so for the smoking breaks. I’m not a fan of cigarettes, so here, I advocate for coffee.

In response to my occasional anti-smoking sentiments, Roger would tell me that he gets a lot of work done during smoking breaks. This may sounds counterintuitive, but it was actually true. Roger effectively got work done during breaks for one simple reason: spending time outside the office led him to casually run into people.

In order to convey the productive power of casual breaks, I first need to give some context on the particular work environment. Roger and I worked at a campus of 6 different office buildings, among which government workers and contractors supporting various teams, departments, and products were dispersed. While the majority of personnel on the campus worked on an integrated, government IT product line, offices were highly separated along borders of government, contractors and work streams.

Government IT acquisition and development involves support from several different departments and teams, so collaboration is key. However, given the dispersed organizational structure of the workplace, people often turned to emails and formal meetings to communicate and collaborate. And as a result, many people were over-booked with overlapping meetings and pages of emails to respond to.

Roger’s breaks were productive because he often ran into people working in different departments. Thus, a coffee/smoke break often transformed into a causal working meeting, quick chat, or informal check-in regarding the status of a joint project.

In particular, Roger’s coffee/smoke breaks were productive because they facilitated 3 collaborative components:

1) Informal information sharing

Formal meetings can often be high-pressure, bureaucratic, crowded and lengthy. Moreover, people might be intimidated to introduce novel idea for fear of being criticized in front of managers, colleagues and stakeholders. The coffee break presents an opportunity for people to discuss issues and brainstorm ideas without fear of scrutiny.

2) Fresh environment

Sitting at the desk all day can lead to narrowly focused work, which is great for knocking out tasks. At the same time, having coffee with people working in other departments can inspire big-picture thinking and a multi-perspective outlook on a project. A fresh, out-of-office environment literally breaks through departmental silos and walled communication borders.

3) In-person communication

What’s better than the satisfaction of sending a well-crafted email? Bumping into someone who has yet to respond to your email. While outside the office, Roger would often run into a busy manager, in transit between meetings or grabbing a bite. These short interactions were a great way to get quick answers to a question or check-in on the status of an action item.

The morale of the story is that Roger was skilled a taking “working” breaks and running into colleagues at the right time. Our project involved the participation by requirements analysts, software trainers, developers, release managers, and a variety of other staff. We’re all busy, so it can be difficult to involve this type of large and diverse group in a specific task. Roger was able to use the casual break as communicative and collaborative tool to engage multiple fellow-smokers and coffee-drinkers, leading to forward progress on project initiatives.

What kind of breaks do you take?

Do you find casual meetings useful and how so?

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Julie Chase

We have “scheduled” breaks, 10 min each. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. I take a walk break. I walk about 1 1/2 miles. The WG have breaks written in the bargaining contract. There is nothing written in the policy that affords GS’ a break. However, our manager encourages all of us to have breaks…mostly at the same time. We gather around a table outside and just chill. Smoke breaks for the smokers are any time they want one. I don’t mind, we have great people here. Yes, casual meetings are when the best ideas come forth. However, we are mindful that they do not conflict with a regulation/policy/procedure as outline by Order #5-7, para 2, section 5, line a. I am blessed to work for a semi industrial organization, we are so like family.

Kim Truong

Thanks for sharing your experience, Julie. I’m curious, what does that line in Order 5-7 say? I’m not familiar and I can’t seem to find it.

Julie Chase

Kim, it’s made up. I don’t know all the orders. I’m not expected to know, I’m just expected to follow them. Every PD in the DoD has follows a mission, each mission has orders, each job (the way things are done) are through the orders. IoW, if I say, “You know, if we didn’t have to email 20 people in another organization to get get an acquisition, things would move a lot faster.” Then someone quotes the order. “No, the order specifically states that no less than 20 people in another organization shall be emailed to acquire permissions for this acquisition.” Our days are “planned” according to the organizational mission to support a military agency. As far as breaks go, yeah they are great. We mostly talk about weekend plans, family, friends, etc. Doesn’t do any good to mind-meld about work or be innovative. I guess most people don’t know that about DoD.