Almost 20 years ago, I applied for a developer position at a very large Danish-based company. I completed multiple tests and interviews but was rejected in the end by the recruiter, who had roughly the following argument: “You are qualified for the position, but we fear you will spend too much time hanging out by the coffee machine”.

Back then, I was offended by how they could think that about me. A year later, I started as Agile Project Manager at TDC (telecom) and, ever since, my work-life has been about engaging in and bringing people together in meaningful conversations — often with coffee involved.  Who doesn’t love a good cup of coffee?

Many companies’ decisions on how and what coffee and tea to serve employees is primarily driven by trying to optimize for efficiency and cost. As long as coffee meets the minimum standards that still makes employees show up to work, the lower the price the better. Coffee machines are typically tucked away in back room pantries, scattered across the company by an algorithm that balances the time it takes employees to walk to the machines with the cost of acquiring and operating them.

At the same time, many companies struggle to keep up with the current pace of change because of their lack innovation power to timely react to changing market conditions. But what if they used coffee as a driver for a culture of innovation? What if they invested in making the coffee machine conversations part of how they do business? Innovation happens when people collaborate. Especially when people from different parts of an organization, with different perspectives, skill-sets, and experiences get together and talk. At many companies, this rarely happens without being managed. When it does, the conversations are usually formal and related to solving a specific problem. Those formal types of conversations are very different from the conversations people usually have over an informal cup of coffee and probably less likely to lead to new innovative ideas, because people are narrowly focused on a very specific topic.

Recently, I listened to a Jacob Morgan (@jacobm) interview with the Global President at Mars Drinks, a segment of Mars Incorporated, Xavier Unkovic. Mars Drinks has invested heavily in completely redesigning the company’s headquarters to support what they call a coffee culture. I was a bit surprised they hadn’t done it earlier, as Mars Drinks’ business model is to offer coffee and other hot beverage solutions to companies—but better late than never.

A key element in the redesign was moving the coffee machines to the center of the office by creating dynamic coffee lounges and so-called “social kitchens” (image below). The new headquarters also features different kinds of work spaces, primarily dominated by large open-space offices, but employees can also withdraw to smaller rooms to have private conversations or when they need quiet time. Mars Drinks also encourages employees to stay on-site for coffee breaks and lunch, thereby creating more opportunities for collaboration and connection.

Social kitchen at Mars Drinks

Moving the coffee machine and throwing in a few lounge chairs alone doesn’t guarantee a collaborative culture, but it can definitely support it. More importantly, leaders also need to genuinely show that they value informal connections and collaboration across departments and teams. At Mars Drinks, Xavier does this by hanging-out at the coffee machine whenever his schedule allows. He also makes himself more accessible by having his desk in the open space office alongside the other employees, who are welcome to use it when he is not there.

Going back to my own story of almost twenty years ago, the recruiter was absolutely right not to hire me. Five years later I went back and took a job at another company in the same group. I lasted less than a year because it just wasn’t a very good cultural fit for me, although the coffee was actually pretty decent.

How is the coffee culture at your company? Are people allowed, or maybe even encouraged, to hang-out by the coffee machines? Are the leaders showing the way by joining the conversations? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Or, even better, let’s talk over a cup of coffee.

Photo credit: My awesome Rocket espresso machine in action earlier this morning (if you look close you can see my mirror image) and Mars Drinks.