If you’ve ever been to Sweden, you know how serious their coffee culture is. You may also have experienced the Swedish ritual of fika: relaxing with a cup of coffee and something sweet. Pronounced fee-ka, it roughly translates as “coffee and cake break”—but Swedes will tell you the concept of fika encompasses far more than that.
It’s an established workplace social experience, a state of mind, and an important aspect of Swedish culture that very much reflects their balanced approach to life.
Many Swedish companies observe fika twice a day at set times, typically for about 20 minutes. It may sound counterintuitive to Americans that pausing the flow of work would make good business sense. But there’s growing evidence that taking breaks — especially proactive, scheduled breaks — can actually boost employee productivity, creativity, and engagement.
How Fika Engages Employees
Home goods retailer IKEA is among the most recognized Swedish brands around the world. They describe fika as a custom that lends itself well to the workplace: “A traditional Swedish coffee break in the day where you pause, reflect and reconnect. You’ll find it’s also a chance to get things done quickly and simply – without booking a conference room, drawing up an agenda or creating a slide presentation. Why not just get together with co-workers and figure things out?”
Anna Pålsson, a marketing intern at the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Philadelphia, told The FruitGuys Magazine that fika has a big impact on workplace culture even though it is “a simple thing … you’re sitting down, you’re talking, and you’re talking a little break.”
Regardless of when or where it happens, the key element is being present and paying attention to the people around you. “You’re usually having a coffee with something sweet—it could be an apple, or a piece of cake. There are no rules of how to do it,” she says.
Learning to Take a Break
It’s a very different approach to how many American workers take their breaks: ducking outside to scroll on smart phones, or hunkered over their desks, eating and working at the same time. Pålsson explains that in Sweden the custom starts as early as primary school, when children have “fika time.”
“It’s kind of implemented throughout your whole life,” Pålsson says, so it’s hardly surprising that fika would be an important part of workplace culture.
One Swedish company where Pålsson worked would observe a special fika once a week, visiting a local bakery. “It was a big part of the work culture, because we knew every Thursday we were going to take fika.” Other businesses take a “BYO” approach, with employees taking turns and bringing in home baked goods or other items to share at fika time.
“I feel like [fika] really helps the work environment,” Pålsson says. “Because you’re getting to know your co-workers a little bit. Talking about your families, vacation plans, or whatever.” As she explains, the simple act of taking this time out with colleagues can change the way you interact with team members throughout the day.
5 Ways Fika Can Improve Your Workplace Culture:
1. Building Trust
Fika promotes trust through face-to-face connection and communication.
2. Avoiding Confusion & Bureaucracy
As the IKEA website puts it: “Why over-complicate things? Spend a few minutes together, say what you have to say. And listen.”
3. Reducing Silos/Hierarchy
Fika helps foster company-wide engagement by introducing colleagues from different teams and levels of seniority.
4. Boosting Energy & Creativity
By imposing a brief change of location — away from your station/computer — and letting you come back to your work refreshed, fika can help energize employees.
5. Encouraging Employee Engagement
A fika-style ritual gives employees something to look forward to; it gives them permission to truly disconnect for a few minutes, get to know coworkers, and fuel themselves with a special treat.
In her book Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes, author Margaret Heffernan shares the story of a researcher studying communication patterns at a call center. As an experiment, he recommended they have everyone take a coffee break at the same time, and this small shift led to $15 million in productivity gains, and a 10 percent boost in employee satisfaction. “Not bad for a coffee break,” Haffernan concludes.
It’s not the caffeine, Heffernan argues, but the social connectedness created through these shared moments that can make a team more effective and efficient.
A Healthy Change of Pace
We’ve probably all experienced the serendipity of arriving at a new idea or creative solution when we take a break from working, get up and move to a different environment. And when leaders engage in the social aspect of fika, taking the time to listen and learn from employees, it can have a powerful impact.
In a world where so much interaction takes place via screens, and we’re constantly rushing to stay ahead of our to-do lists, fika is a healthy and refreshing change of pace.
Ways To Try Fika in Your Workplace
The logistics will depend on the size and culture of your company. You may start with just your team, or your whole office, but here are some ideas on how to improve office culture with fika:
- Establish a weekly cadence (for example, “Fika on Fridays”) and commit to at least four consecutive weeks of it.
- Schedule 15-20 minutes and invite your team to gather in the cafeteria/breakroom or walk together to a local coffee shop.
- Use your FruitGuys delivery as fika time and gather around the weekly box and make it an occasion for your team to sample the fresh fruit together.
- Grab your coffee cups and leave your devices behind.
- Make an effort to chat with someone new.
As Pålsson says: “It’s a simple thing that could make a big difference.”
Elisabeth Flynn is a freelance writer who lives and works outside Philadelphia. She writes about food, fitness, workplace culture, and personal finance.