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Leading Academics say Tea Breaks make better Teams

August 15, 2012

There may be no ‘I’ in team but there is ‘tea’ and it turns out that tea (or coffee) could be the key to unlocking the potential of teams, with one US bank anticipating a staggering $15 million productivity increase as a result.

team coffee break

When teams take tea breaks they perform better according to MIT study

Back in 2004 the Oxford think tank Career Innovation published a paper entitled The Conversation Gap. The basis of their findings was that 4 out of every 10 high performers in several leading companies reported that they have an issue that they want to raise but feel unable to do so – the Conversation Gap of the title. Additionally the increase in electronic communication continues to rise. Average emails received and sent rose by over 30% from 2010 to 2011 despite spam dropping from 19% to 16% in the same period. One of the consequences of this increase is that those spontaneous conversations by the water cooler have reduced. Therefore employees feel less informed and there’s less likelihood that new ideas and opportunities will be discussed unless a formal meeting is convened.

The exception to this is where organisations invest time and resources into activities that enable social interaction whether that’s routine tea breaks, installing a table football game in the office or regular off-site team building days.

In the April 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Prof Alex (Sandy) Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, explains how his researchers have utilised technology to prove that conversations in the workplace can raise performance. They’ve developed an intelligent badge that users wear around their neck much like a security pass. These badges are able to measure where and with whom wearers interact, measuring tone of voice; whether they face one another; how much they gesture; how much they talk, listen, and interrupt; and even their levels of extroversion and empathy. Prof Pentland and his team then analyse the data to identify the conversation patterns that make for successful teamwork.

To date, the research has involved 2.500 people across 21 organisations for periods of up to 6 weeks and it appears that the best predictors of productivity are a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. “Productive teams have certain data signatures, and they’re so consistent that we can predict a team’s success simply by looking at the data” states Prof Pentland.

In the case of a bank with 10 almost identical contact centres, when the whole team took a break together the ‘Average Call Handling’ time dropped by between 8% and 20% meaning that the centre could handle more calls in a day. By changing the break schedule so that call handlers are able to mix and interact together over tea and coffee the bank expect to realise a $15 million productivity increase! Additionally they are already seeing employee satisfaction improve which will in turn lead to reduced staff turnover, the Achilles heel of most call centres.

Smaller businesses like innocent, the smoothie makers have designed their work place to encourage unplanned conversations. Open plan kitchens are located centrally, stocked with breakfast cereals to encourage chat and a nutritious start to the day. The leadership team from a television station resolved (after a two day strategy session) that one of their actions going forward would be simply to have coffee together every day at 10.30. During this 15 minute break they would catch up, make decisions and overhear what’s going on around the business, thereby reducing their reliance on long, formal management meetings.

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