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Published: Tuesday, 5/16/2006

COFFEE TALK

By MARY K. FONS

CTW FEATURES

It usually happens around 3 p.m. Lunch is long over, the afternoon is dragging and your eyes want nothing more than to shut for just five minutes. Unfortunately, a quick nap under your desk is not an option.

Thank goodness for coffee.

According to research from Filterfresh, a nationwide provider of office coffee in New York, the ubiquitous coffee break was first started during World War II and has since played a huge part in American office culture. Factories wanted to give workers a brief rest and a jolt of caffeine, though it wasn t called a coffee break until 1952, says Staci Weiner, a representative from Filterfresh. That year, a Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad campaign urged consumers, Give yourself a Coffee Break and Get What Coffee Gives to You. After that, 70-80 percent of American workers were taking coffee breaks.

Factory owners only wanted to wake up their workers and likely didn t realize they had started a long-standing, beneficial institution that would play an even more important role in the modern workplace. Our afternoon coffee break provides us a mile-marker of sorts that lets us gauge our progress on our list of daily tasks, says Kent Hatcher,senior consultant and certified professional ergonomist with Humantech, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization that helps companies initiate ergonomics into their businesses. This indicates to us if an adjustment in our pace is necessary, it helps us balance and perhaps re-prioritize our task demands.

According to Hatcher, ergonomics isn t only about where your mouse should sit on your desk. In fact, the coffee break is actually a way for organizations to become ergonomic with the time their employees spend at work. The study and application of ergonomics is essentially about optimizing our performance on a task or set of tasks, he says. A coffee break allows us to balance the demands of our workload with the capacity of our body to absorb the stress, both physically and mentally. Companies recognize potential conflict can impact productivity, and have therefore built in coffee breaks as time-buffers to ensure that the production system i.e.,you the employee can handle the demand of your customer.

And you thought you were just craving a skinny latte.

These days, unless you re working in the manufacturing industry, there is less of a chance you ll be required to take your break at a specific time, and you re unlikely to have to report or record it. Companies understand that giving their employees some freedom in scheduling makes for a happier, more productive staff. Although we have become a nation of coffee drinkers, today s breaks are not thought of as coffee breaks, but as anything goes breaks, says Beth Carvin, CEO of Nobscot Corporation, a human resources software development company based in Hawaii. Break time is used for cigarette smoking, errand running, snacking and Internet shopping, as well as having that cup of Joe.

Whatever it is employees choose to do during their break time, Carvin seems to approve. A structured break gives a clear separation between work time and relax time. An employee with a structured break knows that when not on break, he or she is supposed to be working. An employee without any planned break is more likely to take rest time on and off throughout the day, resulting in less productivity.

Plus, break time encourages co-worker mingling that builds a cohesive team. Structured breaks give employees an opportunity for some down time with coworkers, says Carvin. This not only breeds camaraderie and strengthens employee engagement, it also provides a relaxed time for employees to meet and communicate about work issues with peers they might not come in contact with during the workday.

In fact, some companies have taken this casual meet and greet a step further, and have started using coffee breaks as impromptu meeting times for management and staff. I am on the road just about every week, like each of Humantech s 20 consultants says Hatcher. Even with all our busy schedules, we believe that face-to-face coffee talks with our manager are critical. Hatcher says these talks include some time talking about my recent projects, any key learnings and my performance plan objectives for the next few months. Hatcher adds that the coffee talk method works for his company because his team is close-knit, and it makes it easy to communicate in an open, friendly manner.

Others don t believe in this management style, however, and believe coffee breaks should be just that: time-outs for coffee or other errands. Carvin warns against broaching certain topics in a coffee meeting, arguing that, Discussing challenges or issues with an employee over a casual cup of coffee sends mixed messages. The employee is left wondering if the issue is something serious. A more effective use of the coffee discussion might be for informal mentoring, communication on upcoming, positive changes in the organization and discussions on the employee s career development goals and aspirations.

Whether you re on a first name basis with the barista at the coffee shop across the street or have an intimate relationship with your office s coffee maker, don t be afraid to take the break. A well-timed afternoon breather directly impacts your productivity and is a respite worth savoring at least until HR approves naptime.

Mary K. Fons is a Chicago-based freelance writer and reports frequently on job-related issues.

CTW Features



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