Workplace Culture

Making Break Rooms Fit for Your Employees

By Sarah Sipek

Jun. 7, 2016

If you Google pictures of the Chicago Cubs’ former locker room and its brand-new one, your eyes might bulge out.

The oldie was far from a goodie with a cramped, bland, blah appearance that might have served its purpose when Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett squatted behind the plate in the ’20s and ’30s, but not for the energized, hip culture the team is building with young stars like Kris Bryant. The new locker room looks like something out of a party planner’s dream with cool lighting and a spacious, futuristic feel. Not surprisingly, the players have expressed their approval in numerous interviews.

Most companies don’t have locker rooms for their workers, but most do have break rooms, which sometimes can resemble relics in today’s society. White walls, white goods, maybe a table and chairs and a bulletin board.

While work isn’t always fun and games, some companies are learning that a cool break room can be a tool for collaboration — and a differentiator in the recruiting process.

That was the case at Mesirow Financial, a Chicago-based financial services firm. According to Audrey Payne, facilities manager at the firm, the higher-ups made the decision to update the break room as a way to attract top talent in a competitive field.

“We initially decided to update our break room last winter to provide additional perks for today’s highly experienced and driven workforce at Mesirow Financial and since doing so have also seen a greater sense of community among our employees.,” Payne said. “The new lunch room attracts groups of people from different departments to mix and interact in a way they were unable to before.”

In an effort to support employees during their long workdays, Payne said the company focused on two factors: open space and healthy foods.

Clamoring for More

In a 2013 survey of 2,035 U.S. workers conducted by San Francisco design firm Gensler, only 25 percent of respondents said they believe they are working in an optimal workplace environment for productivity.

That means 3 out of 4 workers are struggling to work effectively, resulting in lost productivity, a lack of motivation to innovate and disengagement. This leads many companies to rethink the office environment.

In some cases, that means establishing quiet corners with high tables where people can meet. Other offices have a basketball court for pickup games.

But the goal is always the same: to stimulate interaction among co-workers and let the business profit from the creative flow of ideas and high morale, said Todd Heiser, a principal and design director in Gensler’s Chicago office.

“We have three goals when creating any workspace for an employer: collaboration, health and wellness,” Heiser said. “The end goal is to give employees everything they need, whether that is food, beverages or a comfortable space to take a break. We want the office to have everything employees need so they don’t have to leave as often.”

And a break room is a good place to start, said Doug Sitzes, senior workplace strategist at office furniture company Haworth Inc.

Listen to Employees Needs

Like establishing any successful employee policy, designing a great break room takes engaging your employees. In its 2013 workplace survey, Gensler found that providing employees with choices and a voice in company decisions drives their levels of happiness and leads to greater motivation and performance.

According to Sitzes, design firms can spend months talking with employees and observing their patterns in the office to get a sense of where they spend their time and how to maximize their interactions before ever drawing up a plan.

One of the most common complaints Daniel Stein hears is that break room layouts don’t permit social interaction. When preparing for the redesign of investment banking and wealth management firm William Blair & Co., Stein, the co-owner and vice president of vending machine company Mark Vend Co., took into account the long hours and need to get away from the workspace for a mental and physical break.

The open-air space the firm created for William Blair has prompted hundreds of employees to leave their desks each day.

“Before updating our break room, our cafe was rarely used,” said Trish Rothman, William Blair’s global travel manager. “Now 200 to 300 people use our grab-and-go fresh market along with our office favorite, the espresso machine, each day.”

Break rooms often also serve as an impromptu place for small groups of employees to meet instead of having to schedule conference rooms in advance, Heiser said. That was the case at electronic trading company Trading Technologies International Inc. The break room Gensler designed helped drive continued collaboration among employees.

The redesign included many cozy alcoves tucked in the sides of hallways, perfect for more informal meetings.

No Need to Spend an Arm and a Leg

Employers who don’t have the extra cash to knock down walls and put up big-screen televisions needn’t worry that they are doomed to have a disengaged workforce. There are simple steps employers can take to infuse the spirit of a great break room into the office space.

Start with comfortable seating, said Patricia Curran, a principal in the National Clinical Practice at Xerox HR Services.

“Getting employees out of their standard office chairs where they’re in a hunched-over position is an almost instant stress reliever,” Curran said. “From there consider painting walls to break away from the humdrum whitewash of most office spaces. These simple changes are inexpensive and can do a lot to alter an employee’s mindset.”

Of course, there is the possibility of going overboard, too. Some company break rooms can get pretty “wonky,” said William Kahn, Boston University professor and employee engagement expert. Pool tables, big screen televisions and comfortable couches seem like more of a distraction than a way to ultimately drive employee production.

But for those employers who don’t think adding amenities is a good use of space, Kahn has this response: “Sometimes distance from work can help trigger engagement. The opportunity to stop thinking for a few minutes and divert attention to something fun helps shake employees out of the pattern of only doing what needs to be done in a day. The break room helps them re-engage.”

To help ease employer anxiety, Kahn recommends establishing areas of measurable return before going through a redesign. Creating employee surveys that measure satisfaction and engagement and distributing them before and after the redesign for a set number of months can establish data for CEOs that proves that the money was well spent.

“It’s also important to look at turnover rates and absenteeism before and after the redesign,” he said.

In the end, the most important factor is that a company’s break room design choice reflects its culture.

“Each break room is unique, and what works for one company won’t necessarily work at another,” Stein said. “It’s about understanding your workforce and providing them the type of space that will allow them to decompress.”

Sarah Sipek is a Workforce associate editor.

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