The importance of fika time for a startup

My newest venture, thestartupfactory.tech, https://thestartupfactory.tech/ has been up and running for three months now, and we’re in good nick, building our confidence, rhythm, spirit, cadence and culture. We’re a team of passionate folk who work with tech startups to turn their vision into a reality, enabling innovation and customer-centred thinking into their new tech product and business.

We’re entrepreneurs, software engineers, designers, analysts, and agile practitioners. We’re also bloggers, explorers, speakers, swimmers, dog lovers, coffee addicts, campers, walkers, musicians, gamers, footballers, readers, travellers, gardeners, parents, and optimists.

That list is about ‘who we are’. We bring our true selves to work. Our business is defined by who we are, our values and the culture we create. More grit than glamour, we’re built on the spirit and down-to-earthiness of Manchester, ‘factory’ being an acknowledgment of the industrial heritage of what made Manchester special, and also taking the disruption, innovation and ethos of one of the city’s most evocative businesses, Factory Records.

With an attitude of graft and guile, we are factory workers, we get our hands into the machinery of building a startup, we roll our sleeves up, get dirt under our nails and get stuck in.

The essential moving parts of any startup are the people capital, not the venture capital, as Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and we’ve spent time thinking and building our culture ahead of any rush to market.

When setting out on our venture, we looked to other entrepreneurs for a steer as to what makes for a happy and healthy business. We found this quote from Jeff Bezos: Find the things that are important to you and invest heavily in those things.

So we created the Five Pillars, to stay focused on a list of meaningful things that created and sustained intimacy and interaction between us, and connected us at a personal level. I spend more time with the team that I do with my dog, so there had to be reason to be here.

So here is the list of Five Pillars, it’s on our web site.

Vision & Values

  • Our business is about people capital, not venture capital
  • Reach beyond your expectations, every day
  • First names are important, job titles are not
  • Trusting each other is the platform for everything we do
  • Everyone practices humility and self awareness, but also self-esteem
  • We know the mentality to be successful and we have it in abundance

Culture

  • No office hours, but minds always open
  • 40 hours a week maximum; 32 summer hours – 4 day weeks, July & August
  • Weekend starts 1pm Friday
  • We pay for one weekend holiday a year for everyone
  • Fresh fruit breakfast in the office every day; pay for a weekly ‘Hello Fresh’ shop once a month
  • Team social last Thursday of every month

Knowledge

  • Everyone has a personal R&D project
  • Host Lunch & Learns third Thursday in the month
  • Run four hackathons a year
  • Wednesday afternoon is your personal learning time
  • Everyone goes to one event a month; everyone has a monthly book allowance
  • Performance of the business is transparent to everyone

Social impact

  • Lead a Code school in Manchester for under 11s
  • Provide a platform for unemployed people to get back into work
  • Sponsor & help the homeless in Manchester
  • Mentor a Social Enterprise
  • Provide paid internship opportunities
  • Be an active contributor to Manchester Tech Trust

Success

  • We will keep our company small and intimate, with reasonable expectations
  • Our place of work is a welcoming oasis, not a chaotic kitchen
  • Anxiety is not a pre-requisite for progress
  • We are calm by choice and practice
  • Everything is about having a reasonable day, going home, and living your life
  • Success is looking at a visible horizon, and getting there in the long run

We’ve not done everything yet, there’s a few wrinkles and edges to sort as we’re not doing some things as well as we can, but the Five Pillars gives us clarity and purpose about our direction.

I’ve long been interested in entrepreneurial cultures and the underlying philosophies, how you create the conditions to spark a startup based on the emotional intelligence and connectivity of the people. We’re more reflective than rebels, and on crafting the Five Pillars came across a concept from Ikea, ‘fika’, which we’ve implemented.

At 9.45am every day, we have ‘fika’ time. We each stop what we are doing and huddle around a table, have a cup of tea or coffee, and just be with each other. We chat about anything and everything but work. Friday was about Chuck’s pending house move; James neglecting his desk cactus; Jake’s obsession with 3D printing; and my ridiculous new waistcoat wardrobe. We also get loud about curating our tsf.tech Spotify list.

What we sample is an experience and unique word at the heart of Swedish life and work – ‘fika’ (pronounced ‘fee-ka’). According to the Swedish Culture website it is described in this way:

Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. Fika is much more than having a coffee. It is a social phenomenon, a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time.

Coffee is traditionally at the heart of the fika. When coffee arrived in Sweden in 1685, it became so popular that it upset the rest of the import business. So much so that it was banned five times in Swedish history!

Fika is a combination of the Swedish colloquial word for cafe – fik – and coffee – kaffe. Who knows, perhaps the term fika served as a kind of code for those who took part in this once illegal activity. It is said that during the bans, Swedes were forced to drink their coffee secretly, out into the woods

Making time for fika is so sacred to Swedes that it’s built into many employee contracts. Some even say that the best ideas spring from fika breaks. We use fika time to cultivate an almost tactile sense of connection, here’s what we are trying to bring into our business.

Communicate frequently and constantly In tsf.tech we are always active on collaboration tools like Jira, Zoom and Slack instant messenger. Besides work content, we post links to interesting items, videos, learnings and stories. The point is that in the physical workplace we know we can relax and chat to people when we see them, but when we’re away from our work space and operating in the more detached digital world, we need to work harder at connecting, talking and feeling close. Fika gives us this.

Be open, vulnerable and honest Not every day is intense, but what works in the digital workplace is to reveal what matters to each of us. Speaking in your own authentic voice is essential. Honesty creates intimacy in digital worlds just as much as it does in the physical. Connecting becomes a deliberate rather than assumed experience. In tsf.tech we say that you do not need to be present physically but you do need to be present digitally, so if you can’t make fika face to face, connect using the tools.

Place your leadership front and centre The beauty of the digital workplace is that it has qualities that are impossible in the physical world. So take IKEA for example. In the physical world, their leaders cannot be everywhere in person having coffee and chatter with colleagues. But in the digital world, through real-time and other collaborative services, they can be ‘felt’ across far more frequently and with a much greater reach. But you have to invest time and authenticity in making it happen.

Use all the technology you can to bring you closer In tsf.tech we grab every new tool that may make us slicker and faster, as well as strengthen our bonds and connections. There is also a level of curiosity and experimenting. We do this because we like to be a ‘digital workplace lab’, we are in a position to experiment and innovate with new digital services in a way that large companies may not be. With all the team save myself under twenty-six, they are ‘digital natives’ and have a natural instinct for UX and gamification.

Make the social side of connection richer and deeper I dislike the term ‘social media’, it’s an oxymoron, because it drives isolated experience and consumption, it connects but doesn’t create engagement. Social for me is sitting next to someone and talking, and the things we talk about and do that are explicitly not work – they are social. Yes, we use social and online tools and the ways in which we use them are clear and distinct, engendering personal connection and relationships inside and outside the company. The point is we share our lives – issues, pets, families and homes. This generates the culture of closeness that the Swedes so value.

Use your own voice to talk and listen I mention voice particularly because on a phone call, Zoom or Webex we are talking and listening in reality. So far the only aspect of me as a human being that can be communicated digitally in the same way as if we are sitting together is my own voice, tone, intonation. I believe how we listen also matters hugely and when someone is listening to another person attentively, the talker can see that quality of listening. This is a key underpinning of fika.

We also have a ‘Your Voice’ item on our fortnightly team meeting agenda, when I encourage sharing ourselves with each other about how work ‘feels’. We also challenge each other and have debates and even arguments when needed at fika time, but we do that using our own voices because our vocal cords and tone of voice are such a powerful and distinct part of who we each are.

Meet in person when you can and make it matter Sometimes for some meetings this is not possible, but using opportunities to meet face-to-face does make a difference. It’s easy to default to the smart tech tools, but if we can meet in person, it adds to the richness of relationship, looking people in the eye and getting a sense of their body language is of much more value to see how we are.

While fika is good for mental and physical wellness, offering a period of calmness in a busy working day schedule, it can also help us to stay focused in the long run. Research has shown that taking breaks increases productivity. Sometimes, during the middle of a task, you might be stuck. With fika, you can have a break, come back refreshed and look at things from a different perspective. We insist that work talk is prohibited in fika. It forces you away from your work so you can re-evaluate things, come back refreshed and prioritise tasks when you do return.

So another year, another Scandinavian lifestyle trend. In 2016, the UK was fascinated by the Danish practice of hygge (finding the simple pleasure everyday life). For me, fika is an opportunity to slow down, come together for a face-to-face and interact. The social aspect of work is incredibly important.

The essential part is making a little space in your day to take a break. In our modern, hectic lifestyles, this is the part that is important: that we take a few moments to slow down in our day and make time to just sit and appreciate the moment.

So, perhaps there are aspects of the IKEA fika around coffee and cake that you can create inside your own digital enabled workplace, like we have in tsf.tech, to enable you to enjoy that atmosphere and chemistry of connection the Swedes love so much. The only part missing so far for us is the cake, but I guess we’ll just have to wait for Jake’s 3D printing of food and add that to the digital workplace menu at tsf.tech fika meetings.

Read this…