Grounds For Dismissal

My last two columns were deadly serious. To balance things out, I wanted to throttle back a bit for this week’s column. While sketching ideas for a suitable topic, a hyperlink to this story dropped into my inbox:

A group of engineers who previously worked at Apple and NASA created an $11,111 coffee maker that measures the liquid’s heat as it brews to maintain the “perfect” temperature.”Susanna Kim, ABC News

Office coffee machine. From Wolfgang Lonien via Flickr.

Pricey: Would you spend $11,000 on a coffee machine for your office?

There you go, then. For all our talk about servers and virtualization, encryption and mobile devices, the most important element of technology in most businesses that I’ve worked in has been the simple coffee maker. Without the “ebony elixir of productivity,” office functionality tends to stall. Tempers flare. Workers lash out in frustration. Crash the e-mail server and executives might get upset; put the engineering department to sleep and the executives become positively apoplectic.

I’ve been drinking coffee since I was twelve. My family lived on Folger’s instant for as far back as I can remember. After saving up a year’s earnings from delivering newspapers, I bought my parents a Mr. Coffee drip brewer for Christmas. That same battered, old coffee maker followed me to university years later. My uni roommate and I used to experiment with different blends, brew times, filter designs and the like to try and get the best brew possible before setting off to classes, work and military science field exercises.

Once I reached the full-time workforce, I found that many of my co-workers were just as dedicated to getting their coffee fix at the office as I’d been in the dormitory. For may years and in many different offices, the employer would install an industrial-grade Bunn flash-brewer that made pots of coffee very quickly – but tasted like crankcase drippings. Most coffee drinkers that I knew would rather have chewed freeze-dried coffee crystals than drink the sludge that came out of the office break room.  I’d make my own before driving to work, as would most of my co-workers.

I first encountered the Starbucks phenomenon in Houston back in 2000 while building a Dot-Com company. For the first few weeks of the project, the fledgling company operated out of Chevon’s tower downtown. On my second day on the project, I learned from another consultant that the tower was connected to a nearby indoor mall by a sky-bridge … an that there was treasure to be found if you knew the secret path down the right elevators and through the right unmarked doors.

Corridor by tuchodi via Flickr

Hidden treasure: Sometimes the best breaktime delights take a little effort to find.

Every morning and every afternoon, most of the of the consultants would trek down to the mall to the Starbucks to get their amazingly over-priced beverages … And I went along with them most every day, because the difference between the sludge in the office and the espressos available across the street was astonishing. The trip was worth it. The expense was worth it.  Oddly enough, more got done on those treks than got done in conventional conference rooms for the same employees.

When we finally moved the new Internet company into their permanent offices in West Houston, the executives built us a break room that featured a massive, $1,400 espresso machine. The sentiment was great … but no one I knew ever used it. It took special training just to turn the darned thing on, and no one wanted to be responsible for breaking it. Instead, we all went downstairs to the tower’s lobby where a perky young entrepreneur would wheel in a coffee cart every morning at sun-up.[1]

I learned a lot from that experience. First, employees are strongly opinionated about whatever beverage gets them through the day. If you provide it to them in a convenient manner, it tends to increase individual and team morale; if you foul up delivery, it decreases morale. It’s a very simple equation. Second, there’s a noticeable and proportional increase in morale dividends as you ramp up your investment in quality, both of the coffee and the brewing apparatus.

For example, when we replaced our old drip coffee maker in the IT department with an early-model Keurig cartridge brewer, office morale took a huge leap to the positive; for the first time, everyone in the office could get exactly what strength and flavor of coffee that they wanted, when they wanted it, without having to fight the other employees over control of the brewer. We’ve been burning out Keurig brewers every year since then – our commitment to good coffee is an icon for why our department is better than all the others in the company.

Keurig coffee maker by Moresheth via Flickr.

Java: A Keurig coffee maker in its natural office habitat.

There’s a huge drop-off on that progression, though. The $1,400 chrome monster at the old dot com outfit proved it for me. Back then, the executives not only failed to realize a benefit from the extravagant device – they made things actively worse. The dot com team took a morale hit: first, no one ever felt comfortable using it. Second, no one wanted to be “caught” in the company break room with a beverage that had been bought from the lobby cart. The executives (who lived right down the hall) would (naturally) be upset when they discovered that no one was using their expensive chrome toy. That led to resentment between upper management and production. Employees started sneaking out of the office via the fire stairs in order to get their coffee so as to avoid getting censured by upper management. The whole mess became a running joke.

I suspect that the $11,111 Blossom machine will be just as ridiculous as that $1,400 beast, at least from a business perspective. Yes, it’ll likely make utterly sublime coffee … However, the presence of one in most offices will likely cause a backlash. Employees will be terrified of breaking it. Management will fussy about maintaining it. This will cause a negative feedback cycle until the machine sits, pristine and unused, as a trophy rather than as a brewer. The line employees, meanwhile, will sneak out of the office to the nearest coffee shop to get their reliable and reasonably-priced fix.

There may be opportunities to put one of these Blossoms to work in such a way that you can neutralize the negative consequences. When I worked at Yahoo! Broadcast in Dallas, we had a live-in barista just around the corner from us in Engineering Services. I used to hit that counter three times a day. We never paid any attention to what the gentleman behind the counter was using to make our coffee; the fellow was personable, the coffee was darned good and it was free. Maybe in a situation like that, a Bloosom or a Clover machine might be a good investment.[2]

My recommendation for most companies, though, is to buy a decent, commercial-grade, cartridge-based system (like the Keurig) for each floor in the building. Place it somewhere that encourages employees to interact with one another. Stock the break areas with two or three popular blends of cartridges so that there’s always something palatable available for visitors. Then encourage the employees to bring in all of their favorite flavors. You can even start an unofficial marketplace in cartridge trades, allowing people of wildly dissimilar tastes and backgrounds to bridge their differences over mutual exploration of beverages.

empty coffee mug by idleformat via Flickr.

Caffeine hit: Supplying workplace beverages increases productivity and morale.

The one commandment that you must obey is to keep morale up: have a spare unit tucked away in stores as an emergency replacement for when one breaks. And for God’s sake … fouling or deliberately breaking the community coffee machine should be – no pun intended – grounds for dismissal. Too many people have way too high an emotional investment in their beverages. I know that I do …

For my next office I plan to add a Nespresso machine to the Keurig in the break room. I haven’t found any other espresso brewers that function as quickly or as cleanly. If you have a better option, let me know. I’ll be happy to try it out.

[1] I’ve only experienced the English “tea lady” phenomena once in my life, also during the PetroCosm project. I was working with our UK office in London at the time. The charming and up-beat young woman who dropped by the office every day to sell us beverages seemed like an unbelievable luxury. I’ve never encountered anything like that that in the United States. As a fascinating side-note, I found that after a few days I’d start dropping by the coffee shop on the corner to buy a larger-than-normal coffee on the walk into work because I felt guilty about having the young lady bring me a beverage while I was working.

That may be a reflection of our culture; the American myth that everyone is born equal tends to have peculiar side effects on us as individuals. For example, just describing the “tea lady” to my American co-workers when I got back to Texas made many of them visibly unsettled. The suggestion that another adult human being should be expected to perform such a subservient task in the office inspired feelings of guilt in many of us – who are we (the logic went) that we can’t go make our own beverage?

Astonishingly, this shame never manifested in a commercial setting – from an American perspective, the barista behind the counter at Starbucks isn’t being forced into performing a potentially sexist, subservient role, since the “free market” myth tells us that the employee must have chosen to be in that commercial capacity at that time as a considered, rational, economic choice. We’re a weird people, sometimes.

[2] I’ve had several great cups from a Clover machine in San Francisco. Great stuff … but I’m not sure that I’d really pay $11,000 for that brewer either … even though the use of it counts as performance art as much as it does brewing.

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own). His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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