Heinrich Hartmann

Virtual Coffee Break

Written on 2018-03-12 in Stemwede, Germany

Photo by karl chor on Unsplash

Virtual Coffee Breaks (VCBs) are the analogue of coffee breaks for remote workers. Here are the rules for holding a Virtual Coffee Break.

  1. VCBs are initiated with a text message “VCB?”
    • Other media (email/chat) are allowed, as long as they are text based. No calls.
    • The message must include a way to reach you, e.g. hangout link, phone number or a skype name.
    • If you sent this text to a VCB first timer then include a link to this post.
  2. To accept a VCB the recipient enters the hangout / returns the call / …

  3. The recipient may ask for a short delay before joining.

  4. The recipient may turn down a request directly by answering “busy”.

  5. VCB requests silently expire after 5 minutes.
    • If the recipient did not get back to you, he was apparently busy. No apologies needed.
    • Once a request has expired, the initiator has probably picked up work again. Further interruptions might not be welcome.
    • If he missed the request before it expired, the recipient can always initiate a new VCB.
  6. A VCB session must be ended after a maximal duration of 15 minutes.
    • The initiator of the VCB is responsible to end the session in time.
  7. A VCB session may or may not involve the consumption of coffee.

That’s it. Enjoy your virtual coffee!


Not having colleagues around is clearly the biggest drawback of working remotely. The VCB is a way to bring the inofficial refreshing coffee sessions from the office to the remote work space.

There are additional complications in the remote settings. The most obvious one that remote communication technologies are involves (which sucks, but can’t be avoided). Here are the design goals, that lead to the above format:

Low distraction. In a remote setting it’s not possible to see if someone is busy. You would not yell at someone who is two hands deep into code with his headphone on. Whereas if you see someone reading the news or wandering around the office a coffee break might be highly welcome. This is the reason we include text messages here. They need to be push based, but easy to discard or ignore.

Keep it short. With a VCB you might get in touch with people you have not seen for a while. Catching up with all life events since your wedding can take hours. A coffee break in within the working hours is not the right place for this. The hard cut at 15 minutes explicitly shuts down this kind of conversations.

No scheduling. A scheduled meeting costs much more than the scheduled time. You can’t start any task, which requires some context to keep in mind up to 30 min before the meeting. Also the time in your day is now blocked, and you can’t take in anything else, like going to lunch. VCBs are not scheduled. It’s either happening now or not at all.

No obligations. If you are busy. It’s fine. Unanswered VCB requests won’t pile up in your inbox and wait to be responded to. Just delete and ignore the request. That’s the protocol. Of course you may come back to these people by initiating a new VCB but there is no obligation. Not even an implicit one.

Feel free to suggest further improvements to the protocol.