We tried to get decadent, too, serving fresh pastries, as a traditional Swedish fika would require. There were no natural food stylists among us (but the pastries, from one of my favorite bakeries in New York, were incredible).

Image for article titled What happened when I forced my American colleagues to take coffee breaks

By now, we were feeling less self-conscious about “performing fika.” We just were fika-ing. Conversation flowed and we acquired real facts about each other. Normally we communicate via Slack, the group-messaging app, where we tend to stick to work ideas and housekeeping information. Because of Fika, we learned that one of our podmates was going to have surgery, and another was planning a relocation to Los Angeles.

Unofficially, at Sarah’s request, we fika’d twice more the next week. One day, Oliver brought a chocolate babka that we cut into thin slices so it would last several days, and from her apartment in Brooklyn, Leah reported that she had fika’d over fruit (kumquats) on her own. The custom had won us over, and we vowed to keep it alive, but we already had arrived at the beginning of the end. Despite Sarah’s late-breaking heroic effort with homemade chocolate chip cookies, the new habit didn’t take. Spring advanced, and our fika days faded.

“A true source of happiness”

We did manage to reflect on our fika experiment before it was exhausted, and we had to admit, as cliche as it sounds, the breaks were a good thing. It’s the kind of tip that we give to readers all the time, and now I’m assuming everyone ignores, because ungluing yourself from your desk is almost a brave thing, requiring real courage, when the work-comes-first mindset is so culturally ingrained. (As researchers discovered in one recent study in China, coincidentally based on experiments set in coffee shops, such mindsets can persist through generations.)

But the deep-seated cultural forces that keep you pinned to your seat really ought to be confronted, for the sake of your mental health. Taking even just a few minutes to let your mind wander, or to let your peers open your mind to the world of coaching 10- to 12-year-old soccer players (as Oliver does on weekends), is restorative. More short periods of rest help us consolidate more learned information. They also lead to better productivity, because you’re more likely to reassess your goals and the way you’re working on them. According to one study from Lund University, regular fikas  lower the risk of burnout (link in Swedish) and reduce the need for long-term sick leave, which makes it a pretty attractive antidote to the forces at work that are literally making us sick.

In an anonymous post-fika survey of our team, only one person said they felt the time we spent fika-ing probably could have been better used. Three out of five people said they didn’t notice any change in productivity, while the other two noticed a positive bump. Two of us found that we used the approaching fika as a deadline to get some part of a task complete. Just knowing a break was minutes away made work more pleasant, and kept motivation levels high both before and after the break, which probably wouldn’t surprise the authors of a new Cornell University study on immediate gratification and intrinsic motivation.

That said, all of my teammates agreed that fika works best when you’re physically in an office, and the majority felt that it’s ideal when you’re in your normal routine, not coming and going from off-site meetings or special events. Even then, one colleague volunteered that twice daily coffee breaks felt “a little oppressive.”

“Having Fika’d at 10:30 am, I just didn’t feel like I needed (or even wanted) it again that day at 2:30 pm. And if I was only going to fika once a day, I knew I would appreciate it more in the afternoon,” she wrote.

The solo fika at home was too much—perhaps too weird— for everyone who attempted it. Two people tried and found they couldn’t manage to make it happen, and two others said they didn’t bother to try.

But we gained some personal insights and a new admiration for our colleagues. One person said they “cherished” the conversations we had during our fleeting Fika sessions, observing, “I have always considered us a friendly, chatty-enough team, but we’ve never covered the breadth of topics that came up during our Fika breaks.”

“Forcing myself to take a break, getting off clock time, and having non-digital sources of interactions with my colleagues is a true source of happiness, a ‘small achievable win, each day,’” said another coworker.

A most countercultural habit

For me, the in-person conversation removed a layer of anxiety I have about setting and interpreting tone, which can be a minefield in a messaging app, even with emoji to help convey feelings. Still, I noticed that as much as I enjoyed ditching screen-based communication, my conversation skills felt rusty.

We read a lot about the slowly dying art of holding meaningful, or even civil, conversations, and we tend to pity young people who have so few opportunities to develop their ability to be present, listen, and perhaps respectfully disagree with someone. But I’m nearly 10 years older than the oldest millennials; the fika experiment forced me to consider whether my conversation skills were atrophying, too.

Our failure to permanently embed fika into our life at work, despite our recognizing the value of it, was indicative of how much our routines, even the ones which may not feel that rigid, stubbornly resist change. One school of thought suggests attaching any new habit you’ve set as a goal to an existing action. For example, you might tell yourself that you’re going to put your running clothes on as soon as you’ve brushed your teeth, interrupting the inertia that will normally carry you to the kitchen for coffee. If your office has a daily ritual already, this tactic might do the trick.

Other cultures might not need the same kind of prompting. Lena Khoury, co-owner of the Fika coffee chain in New York, and a Swedish transplant in the city, says fika is part of a Swede’s DNA. We Americans needed to set alarms (with Slack alerts) for our mid-morning and mid-afternoon fika sessions. But for Swedes, the breaks are part of the natural rhythm of the day.

“It’s just something you do without thinking much about it,” says Khoury. No matter how topsy-turvy your schedule is, you take the time out to connect with your coworkers. In Sweden, “there’s a greater understanding that to be a functional person, you need to take care of the human,” she argues, “and Sweden is better at taking that mentality into the work situation.” (It also offers 480 days of parental leave.)

“In the US, it’s rewarded if you eat your lunch by your desk,” Khoury says. People seem to value quantity over quality, “putting in the most hours, sitting the longest at your desk,” she adds. But in Sweden, you’re either focused and working, or you’re taking a break and eating. “And when you’re eating, you should be actively enjoying what you’re consuming,” Khoury underlines. She sees fika as part of a mindfulness practice, but a communal one.

Back at the Quartz office, I shared some of Khoury’s custard-filled pastries and a cardamon bun with Khe, a final micro-fika. One of Quartz’s senior editors walked by and asked, “Is it somebody’s birthday?”

In New York, at least, the idea of fika will be radical for years to come.

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