Need productivity at work? Take a break together.

Need productivity at work? Take a break together.

Books@Work helps your employees take a break from work – together.

Even as I write these words, having learned what I have from hundreds of participant interviews, I cringe a bit – worried that they will somehow be misunderstood. After all, do employers really want large groups of employees taking a break from work together? We have overwhelming support that Books@Work helps people connect with each other at a deeper level, to explore ideas they rarely get to share and to create a culture of respect, inclusion and openness to diverse perspectives. The benefit of these outcomes to the workplace is not hard to understand.

But can Books@Work benefit an employer by providing an actual diversion from work itself? The evidence is mounting: Books@Work offers a unique opportunity to clear the cobwebs, to refresh and refocus, and to return to work renewed – precisely because it is not about work.

In a fast-paced healthcare setting, a dietitian recently remarked that Books@Work is

“an escape to a different world in the middle of the day. Everything is so hectic and so detail oriented and we’re crunching numbers and we’re making sure that charts are together. Everything is just so, so, so structured that to get away . . . and close the door and go into an escape . . . It provides new perspectives. [It is] nice to come and experience that and like, ‘Ah, you can relax,’ and then you can go back and feel refreshed and renewed.”

She is not alone. A participant in a manufacturing facility halfway across the country recently echoed this point:

“By the time we were done [with a Books@Work session], I went back to work and I felt refreshed. I got away from it. You’re not buried and you come back and you start [again] and now you move forward. Sometimes you’d come back and you thought, ‘Oh, I’ve been stuck on this all day. Now I . . . I got it now. Now I can move on.’”

And a third participant – a junior engineer – insisted that Books@Work is different from other breaks:

“Sometimes I’ll leave for lunch just to go and read or something like that. I think I like this better. It’s still a conversation but it completely takes my brain off of work and . . . when you come back from the meetings it’s like, ‘Okay back to work.’ That was nice, it was like a refresher in the middle of your day.”

A Woman Thinking, 2007, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

A Woman Thinking, 2007, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The good news: the science to support these participant experiences is strong. We have previously shared the power of reflection at work and its measurable impact on productivity. A study published in the journal Cognition found that returning to a task after being interrupted by so-called “task-unrelated thoughts” (or TUTs) heightens vigilance in that task over longer periods of time. Why? Because returning to the task requires you to “reactivate the goal representation,” or to remind yourself what the task is designed to accomplish. As the study’s author explained, “deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused.” TUTs can be daydreams or other cognitive interruptions, but they are thoughts – not simply a coffee or a doughnut or a proverbial smoke in the doorway. In fact, another researcher asserts that taking a coffee break is not the answer for enhanced productivity; rather, a break should afford you the opportunity to learn something new or do something to make a colleague happy.

What about using that time “away” from work to connect more deeply to your co-workers? In a fascinating tech-enhanced study, MIT’s Alex Pentland used bluetooth and infrared-activated socio-meters to measure the human interactions of 80 call center employees. Those individuals who talked to more co-workers got through calls faster, felt less stress and had similar approval ratings as their peers. In his infamous red balloon study, Pentland demonstrated that mobilizing large groups of people with incentives to share information socially results in powerfully fast outcomes. These social networks “lubricate information-sharing and teamwork,” permitting people to work better together to achieve a common goal. The social connections we create as human beings are critical to unlocking our success as a group.

Taking a breakthrough Books@Work has been a lovely surprise to our participants, for reasons too numerous to mention in one post. But through our research, we see the program’s power to use the break from work productively – to build networks that enable us to better accomplish our work through the power of “just reading a book and [using it as] a way to get to know other people.” And the result? One participant’s pithy comment says it all. When he has a computer problem, he explained, he knows who to call. Because of Books@Work, “I now have a friend in IT.”

Make no mistake: our company partners are wildly busy, with organizations in the midst of restructuring, new products being developed and patients in extremis needing immediate attention. But when their employees take a break together, they do more than simply take a break. By connecting and sharing, they refresh and renew, returning to work with new zeal and ready to charge ahead.

Books@Work helps your employees take a break from work. What better way to help them be more productive – together?

Image: Pavel Filanov, Record-Breaking Work, 1931, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg [Public Domain] via

Further Reading:

How Reflecting on Literature Improves Workplace Performance

Recognizing Others and Ourselves through Literature

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.