This is a Swedish concept and refers to chatting in a relaxed way with coffee and something sweet. In some corporate settings, the intimate nature of fika is symbolized by lit candles in bright factories in the middle of the day. (Larsson, 2017).
Fikas are so common in Sweden, the word is a noun (“I am going to the fika”) and and a verb (“Are you fiking?” and “Would you fika with me?”)
Fika Is Not an American Coffee Break:
Swedish fikas have nothing in common with traditional American coffee breaks: a solitary employee goes up to the single cup coffee station and returns to a desk to continue working alone.
On the other hand, Americans are fiking all the time:
Fika is the use of food and liquid refreshment as merely the stated excuse for meeting: the real value is that it allows for informal cross functional conversations.
Fikas help transform colleagues into chums.
In a series of articles we wrote on the diagnosis of relationships at work, Stybel & Peabody ( 2013, 2005) defined chums as work colleagues you enjoy being with but they are not your “friends.” A “friend” is someone whose relationship is not based on positive reinforcement whereas colleagues have a relationship that is based on self-interest. A chum is a colleague “with benefits.” The benefit is that you enjoy being with the person. But that person is not confused for a “friend.”
Fikas are also an efficient way to encourage informal communication across department and divisional lines. It is where young employees learn the “ropes” as opposed the rules.
One issue we deal with in our practice is helping leaders manage corporate growth yet preserving the unique culture that made the organization so special in the first place.
Friday afternoon pizza is an American version of a Swedish fika. Below is another example of an American fika:
One of our clients is a hedge fund. The core functions revolve around investment, compliance, and operations (HR, IT, finance, office management). The dining room contains a long table and free lunch is brought in by management. Employees obtain the food and sit at this long table. The shape of the table does not permit cliques to go off by themselves. It is designed for informal conversation between investment, compliance, and operations.
Below is an organization development intervention we employed using fika:
A low income neighborhood contained a high school, a community hospital, a community college, an outpatient mental health center and center for mental retardation. It was commonly known that certain patients would go to the hospital, the mental health center, and the community college physician complaining of symptoms related to “depression.” Each medical professional would prescribe the same medication. Patients would then have a collection of free medicine. These patients would then sell the drugs to children near the local school.
Formal attempts by management to identify these patients had failed because it would violate Federal and State patient confidentiality laws.
One of the authors instituted a monthly brown bag lunch limited to front line health care workers from the different agencies in the same neighborhood. Management was excluded from participation in these luncheons. There was no agenda other than to bring a desert you might be willing to share.
Like a fika, the stated objective revolves around food. The real objective, however, was for front-line professionals to share information in an informal setting.
In time, strangers became professional colleagues. And some colleagues became chums.
During the fika, patient names were shared. Two people were identified as going to different agencies with the same complaint and receiving the same psychotropic medication. Someone had a chum in the neighborhood police precinct. A sting operation was launched using young actors pretending to be high school student. Police took public credit for a successful sting operation.
In this same neighborhood, it was easy to identify that the mental health outpatient clinic has primary accountability if the issue is adolescent drug abuse. But what if the adolescent who is abusing drugs also has organic brain damage, is acting out in the high school class, and is diagnosed as dull normal intelligence? This is a problem where the issue falls within multiple agency jurisdictions.
The standard message was for the school to define the problem as a hospital problem; the hospital to define the problem as a mental health problem; and the mental health agency to define the problem as a mental retardation problem.
As each agency politely told the parent, “not my responsibility” the parent would become increasingly distraught.
Management attempts to clarify responsibility for patients who fall in the “cracks” of multiple agency missions had failed: managers tended to view the issue from a zero sum game. “If I accept responsibility, it reduces my pile of cash. If I get you to accept responsibility, your pile of cash is reduced and my pile is preserved.”
The issue of patients who fall in interagency cracks was discussed at the brown bag lunch.
Front line service providers agreed on an impartial way to solve the problem: if the parent first went to the hospital, then it became a hospital problem. If the parent first went to the mental health outpatient center, then it became primarily a mental health problem.
By letting the parent define the problem, no agency could be accused of “winning” over another agency. And all community agencies would be seen by parents as responsive.
Managing Fikas for Success
American golf outings have fika-like properties:
Golf is used as an excuse for people to get together. The real goal is informal exchange of information and the development of chumship.
The problem with golf is that it cannot be scheduled at regular intervals. It also consumes too much time. Not everybody has the patience to play 18 holes. Not everybody enjoys playing golf.
A good fika is a regularly scheduled meeting whose stated mission might involve something of common interest. Food is usually an interest shared by all levels in a company and of interest to both sexes.
There is no size limitation to the fika but it should allow for people from different departments and sections of the company to mingle with each other. Like the long table of our hedge fund client, a good fika would be designed to make it difficult to have the same people to sit with each other all the time.
The purpose of the fika is chumship and informal communications rather than the reinforcement of existing cliques. Below are suggested governing rules:
Leaders manage fikas by not managing it. Managers convene fikas and then get out of the way.
Let informal communications “happen.”
Emile Odback is co-author of Fika That! (2017). He points to the importance of regularity rather than making fika the occasional event:
“I think the real magic starts to happen when managers are able to make connection and “chumship” the norm in business, rather than the Friday exception.”
The Swedes can balance consistency of fika with a demanding work schedule by keeping fikas to 15 minutes. Perhaps U.S. companies can manage fikas with 15 minute time slots. Experiment with time slots and find one comfortable for your organization.
Employees who work from their homes may be excluded from fikas and thus deprived of the informal networking that takes place.
Online communication is a great tool for the development of work colleagues. But the lack of informal contact does make chumship difficult.
In theory, home-based workers could “participate” in fikas remotely just as they participate in work groups today. For example, a fika organized around coffee and desert could have people in other parts of the world also drinking a beverage.
One of our clients is a large life science company. It has an impressive telecommunications rooms around the world where employees can speak and view each other sitting around the same wooden table. The design of the room makes the employee who appears on a computer screen appearing to be sitting at the same conference table as everyone else.
As a company uses more “Gig Economy” employees, should consultant used on a regular basis be invited to the Fika? For example:
A tax accounting firm uses fifteen regular tax professionals each year only for three months. If those people are invited to the Fika, should they be compensated?
Managers are expected to participate in and to manage workplace collectives called “groups.” We suggest that there are three types of “groups:” work groups, teams, and fikas. Each type of group has different dynamics and structure. Today we have focused on the management of fikas. If you do not have a regularly scheduled fika, consider organizing one as a way of improving inter departmental communications.
Larsson, Gustav Sletten. Personal Conversation (2017).
Odback, Emile & Odback, Asa. Fika That! :The Swedish Secret to Coffee, Caring and Connection. Peaceful Viking. October 30, 2017.
Stybel, Larry & Peabody, Maryanne. “Friend, Foe, Ally, Adversary, or Something Else?” MIT Sloan Management Review; Cambridge Vol. 46, 4, (Summer 2005):
Stybel, Larry & Peabody, Maryanne. “Is It Really Lonely at the Top?” MIT Sloan Management Review; Cambridge Vol. 54, 2, (Winter 2013): 95-96.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press.