Endangered Experiences: The coworker coffee break
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Most people look at the debate over bringing people back to the office or letting them work remotely forever and see it as a matter of employee experience.
Those people are forgetting the moments in which those employees become somebody else’s customers.
In my experience, there’s one moment in particular that was once highly consistent as a customer activity but may soon become as rare as walking into a store without a mask.
I’m talking about the group coffee break — that highly unofficial, yet often beloved gathering of team members who all leave their desks at a particular time of day.
Having mostly worked for myself these past eight years, I can speak of coworker coffee breaks with a certain wistful nostalgia. I can also speak of it from a CX standpoint because I’ve shelled out way too much money as a participant.
I know not everyone takes coffee breaks with their coworkers, and in some cases there’s nowhere for people to go. But I’ve worked in at least three companies where it was commonplace and pervasive.
As more organizations (like Shopify, Slack and OpenText, to name a few) consider remote-first or “digital by default) approaches to work, I feel it’s necessary to describe coworker coffee breaks in some detail, almost as an anthropologist or ethnographer might, so CX leaders can appreciate what’s at stake:
Stage One: The Gathering
Coworker coffee breaks tend to happen when you’re working in an organization where you’re part of a close-knit group of peers working in the same department or business unit. You’re probably working in cubicles or the kind of small offices that will one day be converted into a breakout room — so confining you’re yearning to break free.
You’re also probably working in a building with a place to eat lunch, in which almost no one actually eats lunch but everyone stops to buy coffees and snacks. In my career these have included a Druxy’s Deli, a Java Joe’s and a sort of “campus cafeteria” that sat in the main level of the corporate headquarters.
The coworker coffee breaks tends to take place mid-morning — after all the latecomers have arrived, everyone’s checked e-mail and done their initial tasks (or got caught up on tasks they were supposed to have finished the day before). Around 10:30 or so is the norm, but I’ve witnessed both earlier and later.
In cultures where coworker coffee breaks have been so well-established that new employees are invited to join the group from day one, there is an unspoken rotation of people who will round everyone up — checking to see who’s wrapping up a call, who needs to pull themselves out of a task and who has been eagerly waiting to be asked.
From a CX standpoint, sending content that is humorous or somehow inspiring could be an unusual but effective way to spark conversation about a brand among members of a buying committee in a casual but authentic way. And yet despite working with B2B clients large and small, I know of no firm that thinks of coworker coffee breaks.
Stage Two: The Descent
Cafes and lunch spots tend to occupy the ground floors of an office building, for obvious reasons, and while health and fitness have become bigger considerations since I was a cubicle worker, I can’t remember a group of coworkers ever making their way to a coffee break via stairs.
Instead, the elevator trip down is when people first begin gossiping in a safe space, or where they allow themselves to enjoy a comfortable silence. Over the past 10 years so so, many of those elevators have been equipped with display monitors of some kind, but they tend to either broadcast some random ticker tape of news headlines, the weather or a preprogrammed round robin of ads.
A CX-savvy firm that recognizes coworker coffee breaks as the most well-attended non-meeting meeting of the day would ensure they have their best messaging show up in those elevators. They would make the call to action easy. They would maybe explore audio announcements or ones that wove in special music instead.
Stage Three: The Purchasing
It’s kind of like high school all over again, except you can be pretty sure about who you’ll be sitting with, and you actually have money to spend. You get in line, order your usual and pay almost without being aware of it.
How strange — and how sad — that I don’t remember a time when a third-party business partnered with a cafe or coffee shop to display something unexpected or unusual between the coffee counter and the cash register.
Bizarre that no charity created a promotion where people could contribute to a special campaign as they paid for their coffee — a contribution that might only have been the cost of a cup of coffee.
Why didn’t (or why doesn’t) some enterprising enterprise attempt to surprise and delight customers during this run-of-the-mill experience by recognizing them in some way, offering a reward personalized to their interest? Any other retailer or business would kill to know exactly when and where their most loyal customers show up, especially en masse where they could discuss a positive customer experience together.
Stage Four: The Kibitzing
You wouldn’t want to interrupt the actual coworker coffee break conversation, of course. People need to vent about their boss, discuss the plot twist in a reality TV show or recount what they did on the weekend.
Consider, however, that conversations between people who see each other every single day can dwindle into silence. It takes little to spark a fresh discussion, even if it’s whatever’s tacked up on the old-time cork board on the wall. Think of what a firm with a well-defined CX strategy could do in those spaces, even discreetly, to provide information, entertainment or some other sense of connection.
This is not limited to visuals. Much like the elevator, there is an opportunity to use music or sound. You could also use smell or even taste, perhaps by placing specially branded items in highly trafficked places.
Stage Five: The Return
The moment everyone gets back in the elevator and then to their desk, they’re often thinking the same thing — Ugh, work.
Here’s when the well-considered e-mail, push notification, social media post or other content could find its more approachable audience. The right experience could not only ease the transition back into productivity, but make you excited about getting back into your task.
Given the need for social distancing and the concerns around hygiene, maybe coworker coffee breaks would have been difficult to maintain, even if remote work wasn’t such a trend right now. Perhaps talking on Slack channels or whatever will offer some approximation of it.
Still, I can’t think of too many other areas where CX and camaraderie are intertwined as powerfully. It’s the kind of thing I’d love to discuss with somebody. Probably over a coffee.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.