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An empty coffee cup seen from above
Reuters/David Mercado
Fun while it lasted.
FORCED FUN

What happened when I forced my American colleagues to take coffee breaks

By Lila MacLellan

I remember my first day of work in New York, when I moved here in the mid-00s from Vancouver. I sat in my cubicle at a financial magazine, working, but also mindful of a colleague who sat to my left, visible through frosted glass. I waited for an opening to chat and maybe go for coffee, but at some point in the afternoon, I gave up. He worked solidly through the day, ate lunch at his desk, and slipped out without a word.

That evening, I called a close friend in Vancouver and described the eerie quietness throughout my new workplace. She said something like, “They’re Americans. They’re workaholics.” What did I expect?

This is one of the few ways that Canadians, the least exotic of foreigners in the US, differ from their neighbors to the south—or at least it’s a broad generalization Canadians like to believe. Though we don’t have European-style eight-week holidays, or seven-hour days, we still like to feel we have a healthy attitude about work that’s lacking in the US.

To a degree, data supports this. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canadians work fewer hours per week than Americans. The Canadian government also mandates 10 paid days of vacation per year (about half of what’s guaranteed in most of Europe and in Australia), while the US doesn’t guarantee any time off. Nor does US law guarantee maternity or paternity leave, whereas parents in Canada have the right to up to 18 paid months away.

By now I’ve adapted to New York expectations, which means I’ve also come to understand that breaks are rare here, not only because of the relentless drive to achieve and compete, but because that ethos pushes the rest of your life to the margins. If you feel like you can wrestle 10 minutes from your laptop’s claim on your time, you probably have a doctor’s appointment to schedule, or a friend or loved one needing to hear from you—there isn’t idle time to sit and be, well, idle.

That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to impose forced breaks on my Quartz At Work colleagues, as a kind of quasi-socialist experiment. Anne Quito, design writer at Quartz, had written before on the Swedish tradition of Fika, when employees at companies large and small take a break from work and gather to have some coffee with pastries, cookies, or cake. And they do this twice daily. Anne called it “the four-letter word that was the key to happiness at work.”

“In the UK, there’s afternoon tea, and merienda in Spain, South America, and the Philippines, but few cultures practice the midday psychic recharge as intentionally and regularly as the Swedish,” she wrote.

So how would a team of American workers react to a full week of fika?

A resistance to change (and sugar)

When I proposed we test it out, the reaction from my peers was mixed. In our team of six, a few people had no response at all, which I took as a “meh.” The one main concern of the group was the idea of eating cake every day for the duration of the experiment, since we’re all fairly health conscious here. And indeed, there are good reasons to eschew cake at the office. After all, many of us eat enough sugary and processed foods as it is, inviting health consequences like memory loss and tooth erosion; we don’t need to turn coworkers’ birthdays into occasions to indulge in even more of it.

I consulted Anna Brones, the co-author of Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break (Penguin Random House; 2015), on this point, and learned that there are no fika police, that substitutions are fine, and that not only do you not have to eat a sweet treat to fika, food doesn’t need to be involved in it at all. (“Fika” is “back slang” for the older Swedish word for coffee, kaffi, which is now kaffe—but even coffee is optional when you fika.)

You also don’t have to fika face-to-face with coworkers, she said, which was handy because one member of our team lives in California, and the rest of us occasionally work from home. Brones, a freelancer, says she and other free agents fika alone all the time.

What we had to remember was that fika is about stepping away from your work and your desk.

With this final piece, the gang was sold.

Fika week arrives

Although Quartz is slightly more social than that first company I joined in New York, group coffee breaks are not customary here. As our fika week loomed, I wondered if our team would look peculiar, synchronizing our silent departure from our pod of desks and strolling over to a kitchen-outfitted common area, in full view of our newsroom.

I need not have worried. At the first Fika, I sat alone at first with a book, though deputy editor Sarah Kessler, who was at home that morning, was with me in spirit.

Quartz At Work senior reporter Oliver Staley, the only other team member in the building that morning, eventually wandered over after a phone call, asking, “So what do we do?” The awkwardness wore off when we allowed ourselves to briefly talk about work, which somehow segued to an incredible episode of the This American Life podcast, about a man trying to figure out whether his biological father was actually his uncle. Though we got off on the wrong foot by discussing work, it at least led to the kind of free-ranging conversation that supposedly makes fika-ing a verified source of the best ideas at Swedish companies. Indeed, people are more creative when their thoughts are roaming.

The second fika that day was more festive, with Heather Landy, our section editor, assembling a plate of dried persimmons, cheese slices, apples, and chocolate graham crackers from Trader Joe’s. Oliver joined again, and so did our colleague Leah Fessler, who shared details from her weekend bachelorette trip to Miami. Her recounting prompted musings on wedding and marital traditions, like the taking of a spouse’s last name. We knew our laptops and phones were filling up with messages, but we tried not to care.

During the rest of the week, fika attendance was spotty. Sadly, Sarah, who had been the one most looking forward to having these pauses imposed on her (“I forget to socialize when I’m working, but I want to,” she told me), got sick, and missed most of the week. A last-minute trip overseas meant our senior reporter in California, Corinne Purtill, couldn’t join the experiment. And on one day, a company-wide meeting conflicted with our morning fika, so we canceled the session, which was fine. Two breaks per day was already feeling like overkill for the team.

The self-consciousness vanishes

By day four, we fell into a groove. Heather and I, along with Quartz At Work contributing editor Khe Hy, took a 25-minute fika break in the mid-afternoon. We talked about books, and about a documentary Heather had seen (and loved) about an alternative music radio station that was the height of cool in the 1980s. Continuing the music theme, Khe described his system for maximizing the Spotify user experience, and his attempts at discouraging his young daughter from channel hopping.

Perhaps to deal with the itch to check our phones, we talked about tech addiction. Fika-ing was forcing us into mini-tech detoxes of the sort you often promise yourself but never initiate.

Then came Fika Friday, the highlight of every week, if you’re Swedish.

 

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).

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.