Is This the Death of the Office Breakroom?

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Jul 21, 2020

It’s a new era for the American office. 

By both choice and circumstance, companies that previously would have never considered a remote workforce are embracing workplace fluidity as the new normal. Call it the Work-From-Anywhere Revolution. Instead of their permanent office setup, most companies now have a more fluid office environment, and an ever-changing mixture of virtual and in-person collaboration. 

Our own internal data supports this trend. In a recent survey of our members (customers), most expect only 25% to 50% of their workforce in the office at a given time moving forward. That means a majority of office workers are working from home most or all of the time.

There are some obvious benefits to working-from-anywhere. The flexibility of remote work can translate to increased autonomy and quality of life, and the absence of a daily commute means that workers have an extra five hours in their weeks on average.

But there are many things that the office — and the breakroom in particular — just does better. Building community, encouraging collaboration, and reinforcing the right organizational culture for your business are all easier in an office setting. 

Before the pandemic, the best offices were optimized for serendipitous encounters, and featured breakrooms and other flex spaces designed to foster deep personal connections and cross-departmental collaboration. Snacks, meals, and drinks were often at the center of these environments. 

The good news is that these outcomes are still possible, albeit with a shift in HR leaders’ mindset and a few new best practices. Here are three ways to ensure that your team stays connected and engaged remotely.

1. Provide a Stipend for Home-Office Setups

In many states, the onset of safer-at-home orders was so sudden that companies and their team members had little notice before they found themselves working at home for an extended period.  

However, most homes were not optimized for work when the lockdowns began. Many still are not. 

One solution: Offer employees cash to dial-in their home office setups. Desks, extra monitors, ergonomic chairs, and other equipment not only make for a more productive environment, they send an important signal — that you recognize your team’s effort to make the best of a suboptimal situation, and that they have your support.

2. Bring the Breakroom to Your Team’s Doorstep

One of the most impactful aspects of the old office culture was the breakroom, where food and drink brought people together and fostered interaction and community. Obviously, that simply isn’t possible right now at many companies. The question becomes: How can you virtually replicate something so tangible? 

The answer: though snail mail. 

To replicate the benefits of the office breakroom, consider mailing snacks to your people and setting aside time to enjoy them over video with colleagues. That way, employees receive a real, tangible token of your appreciation, they feel great, and have a good excuse to meet with colleagues about more than just work.

3. Breakdown Silos With Virtual Interest Clubs 

Snack time isn’t the only way to overcome the obstacle that conversations are rarely casual when you’re remote. When working remotely, more often than not, you only talk to your colleagues when you pick up the phone or schedule a video call — and it’s usually with someone on your own team. 

But the informal, organic, casual conversations that we used to have in the office are far from trivial. They’re extremely valuable, as they help break down departmental silos. 

One way to break down those silos is to create virtual interest groups. These are informal, voluntary groups organized around non-work (or work-adjacent) topics. The key is to organize around general interests, like books, parenting, best-of streaming services, fitness, health, etc. 

It’s important not to give up on the practices that served us in offices but to understand the underlying principle that made them valuable and find ways to adapt them to our new reality. In practice, that means creating digital versions of these practices (like virtual all-hands or happy hours), or scaling tangible benefits across a fluid situation.