Updating the Breakroom: Set Up, Policies & Keeping it Clean

Table with cake, tea and telephones
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Perhaps second only to complaints about the thermostat temperature in offices, break rooms are often a cause for griping in workplaces. Whether the break room is inadequate (or nonexistent), employees are messy or someone ate a coworker’s lunch, this small space can cause frustration. The funny thing is that in all my years of working in a variety of different workplaces, the complaints are pretty consistent. While there may not be a magical solution to make all break room problems go away, there are some things you can do to improve the break room experience for your employees.

Why a Breakroom is important

A breakroom should not be considered a luxury. It is a necessity. From a policy standpoint, it gives employees space to get away from their workstations for their breaks—something that is really important in states like California that have strict meal break requirements. Here in California, employees must be relieved of all duty during their meal break. When an employee has no other option but to sit at their desk during their break, there is a likelihood that they may take a phone call or answer a quick question from a coworker. Having a dedicated break room gives an employee a physical space that effectively says, “I’m on break right now. Please do not ask me work questions.”

I once worked at a company where space was at a premium. As the staff grew to over 600, break rooms transformed into office space, and soon office employees were left with a little more than an old refrigerator stuck in a corner and, if they were lucky, somewhere to put a coffeemaker. There were still break areas with tables in one of the warehouses and production, but seating was at a premium. Employees were strongly encouraged to take their 30-minute meal break away from their workstations, but there were few options unless someone wanted to leave the premises.

If space permits, the breakroom area should be in its own room and not just stuck in the middle of the workspace. It should include adequate seating, a refrigerator, sink, microwave and coffeemaker. Consider also having a set of office dishes and silverware for employees to use. Go the extra mile and make the break room look nice. Put up artwork and a bulletin board for employees to share information. Also, if space is available, add a couch, and provide a table where employees can leave magazines and books to share. One place I worked even had a panini press in the break room. Stock your break room with basic snacks, coffee and tea. Make the break room a comfortable place to go.

There’s a <Breakroom> Policy for That

In an ideal world, employees would clean up their messes in the break room, and they would not leave old food behind in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, such things do not always happen, which causes a lot of break room complaints. You may even end up with annoyed employees leaving passive aggressive post-it notes all over your break room.

Have a policy about keeping the break room clean. Include information on how often the refrigerator will be cleaned out and stick to that schedule to avoid old food piling up. Also remind employees to label anything they put in the refrigerator. If you notice compliance with your break room policy is slipping, address it in staff meetings.

Have Employees take Responsibility for their Break room

When I worked as an HR manager at a distribution center with about 200 employees, it was quite a task to keep the breakroom area clean. We had enough tables to accommodate a whole shift of people taking a meal break at the same time, a row of microwaves and several refrigerators. We had a big problem with people not cleaning up after themselves. We ended up switching to a system where each week a different team of employees was put on break area duty. The team handled wiping down tables, cleaning microwaves and sweeping the floor. When everyone took ownership of keeping the break area clean, it changed individual behavior. Suddenly cleaning up was not someone else’s problem. We were all responsible.

Unless you can afford to have janitorial staff regularly cleaning the break room throughout the day, consider a similar policy for your break room. A dishwasher can also be an easy way to keep employees from piling up in the sink, but make sure to have a plan for who is responsible for running and unloading it, so it does not become a storage place for dirty dishes.

What type of break room do you have? How do you help employees mind their manners in the break room?

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