a cup of coffee on a saucer with a spoon

A friend of mine once described working at a large organization where the employees worked exactly 9 to 5, took an hour lunch break, and left their desks for long coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon. This seemed to leave very little time to get any work done, until she realized that those coffee breaks were actually some of the most productive parts of their day.

The water cooler cliche speaks to how information spreads when co-workers gather informally during breaks. That information can be gossip, but it can also be information key to one’s job.

Mingling during coffee breaks allows people to learn the essential information not passed on in official meetings – such as how to navigate office politics to get something done or the “ground truth” of how the company really works. It can also inspire innovation as informal chats between people from different parts of a company often facilitate new ideas better than scheduled brainstorming – the idea behind office plans that facilitate chance encounters. Breaks also allow people to access a company or organization’s institutional memory that is dispersed in the minds of various employees – the collective experience and lessons learned from past projects that can rarely be summed up in training sessions and manuals.

Everyone needs to take a break from time to time. But it seems harder to spend your break productively at a small startup. For starters, working in a small office means that there will not always be someone taking a break when you decide you need one. Or it will be the person you already spend all day sitting next to.

More fundamentally, young, small companies offer less learning opportunities during daily chit chat. Since they are new companies, there is little to no institutional memory to share during breaks. And unless your small team is unusually political, employees don’t need an education on office politics or bureaucracy. 

Breaks are most necessary for sharing information in large, disorganized spaces where formal channels will inevitably be insufficient. One of the best examples is the Afghan War effort. The lack of information sharing and awareness led one American to offer free beer in exchange for information at a bar in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, since it was the only place that interagency cooperation took place:

“In a war zone where so many different agencies, companies, and contractors passed like wary ships in the night, one of the biggest problems was that no one could coordinate knowledge. No one, that is, except maybe a bartender. Under the banner of ‘Beer for Data,’ Warner had turned the Taj into a major clearinghouse for information.”

Since startups lack disparate teams unaware of what each is doing, the information sharing potential is limited. 

Everyone needs to take short breaks during the day. Scrolling through social media does not seem to be a very productive or recharging way to do so. But some of the most fulfilling and productive aspects of breaks don’t seem to be available at startups. Are we missing something here? How do you slack off productively at a startup?

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.