The importance of the coffee break

As some of you might know, I drink decaf coffee. I’ll just pause for a second to allow the people in shock to recover. The number of people working in science and research who don’t drink caffeinated drinks has similar population statistics to those of the yeti. As it happens, both groups are viewed with about the same level of skepecim at their existence.

But despite my rare and unusual drinking habits, I am a huge fan of coffee, tea and hot drinks in general. Not because they are tasty or because they are warm and stave off the cold of an academic office with sparse heating. I love them because they often mean it’s time for a hot drink break.

In all the jobs I’ve worked there has been one constant – the communal time of day when everyone pauses and huddles around cups of tea, coffee or if we have an intern, juice boxes.

Even in my very first job (when there were just three of us) we still made time to sit and have a hot drink sometime mid-morning, to sip and talk about everything that came to mind that particular day.

While around 30% of those conversations were arguments about my co-worker wanting to mash her teabag as vigorously as possible to make her tea *shudders*… the remaining 70% was essentially so important that it bascially kept the lab running. They did that because coffee breaks were places where we could talk about work or even local politics (amongst 3 that was more difficult, we did try asking one person to over their ears for a bit so the others could complain about them, but it didn’t really work).

Hot drink breaks were taken in a way that was less formal and official as a meeting. No one was taking notes, and no one was expected to prepare slides or show results. There was an agenda but it just read “drink hot drink, eat biscuits (maybe)”. That didn’t mean that decisions didn’t get made in breaks, just that we often didn’t set out to make a decision, we were just chatting about it.

That kind of informal, relaxed, regular update on the lab (and for that matter the office too) really helped keep things going. If we had stopped to have a proper meeting about even half of the issues, we would have gone mad. Having a relaxed open forum to randomly say “Oh by the way, the balance is acting weird, it’s not broken but keep an eye on it…” was much easier.

Research in any organisation can be pretty isolating sometimes. Many people work on their own individual part of a project or even a project of their own, and outside of company mandated events they might not see or talk to even the person next door. Coffee breaks are one way of breaking down that barrier and engaging with people. Even if it is just to argue about how to make the perfect cup of tea.

Where I work now we have not one but TWO coffee breaks where people go, drink and talk about research problems, house selling or just local uni gossip. We may have now possibly taken the coffee breaks to an extreme as we’ve not actually had a departmental meeting since 2014, but we have had ~1,300 coffee breaks instead. I think we may need an intervention.

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