Give Me a Break: Coffee Culture in the Workplace

By Sarah Altemus

I don’t drink coffee. To clarify, I will drink coffee (dirty chai latte if you’re asking) and do enjoy the aroma, taste, namesake cake, and flavor of ice cream but it is not a part of my daily routine. An unscientific grassroots poll revealed that “let’s get coffee” is synonymous with “let’s take a break and chat” and by that logic, I “get coffee” daily. This parallel is confirmed by more academic social studies on coffee’s integral role in the workplace.

Such mid-morning, mid-day, or mid-afternoon breaks invariably impact personal and professional well-being, engagement, and productivity. As a multisensory experience, drinking a cup of coffee (or watching others drink a cup of coffee) has an energizing effect beyond physiology. Even if it isn’t an organized individual or team “break,” a trip to the coffee machine is an opportunity for chance encounters. Designing spaces that employees look forward to visiting increases the chance for creative collisions and “the best case scenario when people run into each other is that brilliant conversations spark, resulting in innovative solutions.”

The emergence of large coffee chains and increasing number of independent coffee shops has “disrupted the work experience and caused its own revolution in the workplace.” Fueled by WiFi and caffeine, creative potential thrives in physical environments that re-energize, inspire, and support a variety of work functions and styles. What the garage was to 1940s – 1980s Silicon Valley, the coffee shop has been for freelancers and entrepreneurs in the recent past. While the literati have found inspiration and production in cafés for centuries, these concepts are now going corporate.

High value work is no longer limited to a desk. The thoughtful and strategic use of furniture and technology in the ExxonMobil Campus Hubs elevates coffee from a product to a place. Coffee pot chats become conversations and content sharing tools create new workflows to capitalize on these conversations.   

Another client of ours features premium coffee and other refreshments for sale. This convenience eliminates the need for an additional stop en route to the office, provides a first touch point for employees walking in for the day, and serves as a destination to “take a break” throughout the day. The coffee shop, branded as pH5 after the hydrogen ion concentration of coffee, features a wall installation created using espresso cups and saucers and a counter designed using abstracted coffee molecules. While it is an overtly coffee-centric space it is immediately adjacent to collaboration space with a variety of furniture and technology.  Come for the coffee, stay for the collaboration.

Work Design Magazine lists “Do great coffee” as one of five attributes to help win with wellbeing. In my experience as a change manager, coffee is a surprisingly big topic of conversation, often cited as a perk or point of anxiety. Especially during mergers and acquisitions, disparate organizations have very unique standards for coffee cost, quality, and culture. At PDR, we have different coffee types and accoutrement on each floor, encouraging movement between floors and throughout our space.

While my coffee consumption is not commensurate with most of my peers or the general public, I recognize the benefits of coffee-fueled socialization and knowledge sharing on employee well-being, engagement, and productivity. 

Sarah Altemus

Sarah is a communication strategy and change management consultant with a diverse background in the humanities and business process improvement. From idea generation to solution implementation, she leverages customized frameworks and platforms to deliver messages in an accessible way – turning information into knowledge. While she doesn’t need caffeine to kick start her day, she is a proponent of performance enhancing naps.