In almost every home I’ve taken on as an Estate Manager, Director of Residences or even a project manager, one of the first issues I address is space for employee breaks and personal storage. Break rooms are a given in the corporate world and yet rarely available in private service. They are essential for maintaining the energy and mood of the household team, and for fulfilling the legal requirement to provide breaks and meal times for your hourly staff.
Some of the challenges in a domestic setting include finding the space and establishing an ‘off-the-clock’ mentality for the room. Another challenge is that families rarely want to see their staff sitting or hanging out when on the job, so there’s an element of ‘training the family’ to respect the function and privacy of the room or locating it out of the normal traffic patterns of family life.
Your break room doesn’t have to be very large; At minimum it should comfortably hold at least 2 people seated at a table and room for meal prep and storage. Ideally, there’s a rest room attached or nearby, and/or an area for changing with a full-length mirror. The space should be climate-controlled, offer wifi, and have adjustable lighting. I’ve converted a large outdoor storage closet, a mudroom, half a garage, and a little-used butler’s pantry in the past.
There are a few essentials to include in your break room:
Employee lockers. These can be purchased in multiple sizes for a few hundred dollars on Amazon. I recommend the ones that come with key locks instead of added padlocks. That way you can keep a key on file if a key is lost or you need to get into the locker. Policies about locker privacy and access by management need to be clearly stated in your employee handbook.
Food prep area. At the minimum, your break area should have a refrigerator that accommodates meals for all staff members, a microwave, and a prep surface such as a counter, island, or a large meeting table. Ideally, there’s a sink. If you have a sink, you should provide dining plates, cups, and flatware. If there’s not a sink, offer disposable dining items. We also provide masking tape and sharpies for staff to label their food items. Don’t forget trash and recycling bins and clean-up supplies.
*Make room in your budget to offer employee snacks and filtered water. Try to keep a healthy assortment of fresh fruits, nuts, and protein bars as opposed to chips and sweets to keep everyone’s energy up and promote healthy eating.
Communication area. This is a great place for a whiteboard, bulletin board, and a calendar. You can post events and updates that affect all employees here. You should also post your federal or state-mandated employment posters in this area. If you have a physical time clock system, this is a good place to mount it and place your time card holder.
*Make your bulletin board user-friendly to your staff. Encourage them to pin photos, articles, or ideas that interest them. Include holiday messages, birthdays, and workaverseries.
If you have the space and the budget, additions of comfortable seating like a sofa or club chairs, TV, and a coffee station make staff feel welcome and relaxed.
The most important aspect of a break room is creating an environment where your staff feels like they are actually on a break. It shouldn’t be a place where they are approached with work questions or have to answer their phone or walkie except in the case of an emergency. They should be able to make personal calls or chat with colleagues, so elements of quiet and privacy should be also considered.
In my opinion, the employee break room should be off-limits for vendors, family, and guests. It also should not become the base for your stand-by security team or staff whose services are on-call. They need their own, dedicated space to operate; This room is for breaks.
When not in use / after hours, the staff break room should be locked to protect the contents and privacy of your staff. To accommodate varied schedules, a timed lock or digital locking app are easy options to lock after the last shift has ended and open in the morning without having to give keys of responsibility to any one staff member.
If it’s absolutely impossible to dedicate a space for your staff, you’ll need to allow them to leave the property during the workday. This isn’t ideal and can be an effective selling point when speaking with your employer about creating a break room for your team.