Teatime problem-solving

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Another PR survey – this time from Office Angels reported on the yearning for the return of the tea trolley.  The Guardian article is nearer the mark, but still misses something.

The drive for efficiency and perfect accounting for time is a constant anachronism – and far too much attention goes there, with added implications that activities like lunchbreaks and socialising were wasting time or somehow detrimental to the organisation.  It’s often the implication that a work contract indicates a straight exchange of salary for workhours, and that any hours used at work for non-efficient work purposes is time stolen from the organisation.  A very dangerous mindset to get into – and one that I’ve challenged more than a few times at conferences (typically, someone talking about email and spam and how many hours can be saved, with a spurious figure of what that means on the bottom line.  Spare me.)

I remember the tea trolley at Racal, back in the 1980s when I was testing radar systems.  It was actually a very useful social space – a specified point in the day when a bunch of people from different areas and specialisms met and talked as we waited to buy anything that I’d probably not allow my children to have today.

There’s a serious denigration of such social spaces these days, usually on efficiency or bottom-line grounds but (as in the case of smoking rooms) health ones too.  The value was in building cross-functional networks and communication channels and talking in non-formal environments.  And non-policed too, which made them more powerful for sharing problems or warnings of potential future issues.

There’s a good argument that properly implemented social media tools can start to create virtual versions of these workspaces, but I’m skeptical: most social media tools are still being implemented with a lot of control or, at best, monitoring in place which will drive difficult communications elsewhere.  And I still believe that physical spaces are better for much of this than virtual ones – trust and believability are crucial elements and can be better picked up with non-verbal cues, making the relationship-building quicker and more durable.


I’m also biased in favour of retaining social/socialising as part of the workspace.  Quite apart from the benefits for the organisation, I believe it’s an essential part of being human.  For me, leaving my previous employer and working on my own in 2000 was difficult above all because of the sudden lack of a social dimension to my work.

So tell me, is it really that bad – if the smoking room, the tea trolley, the staff canteen (and lunch hour) are all disappearing, where do we meet other parts of the organisation except in meetings?