In the early stages of Covid, a ‘last days of Saigon’ feel pervaded Manchester. The trams gradually became less crowded, more shops closed. We turned into hunter-gatherers, foraging in the supermarket, braced for dystopia. We worked from home. In May, the weather was good, making it possible to work in the garden. The novelty of working from home had yet to wear off, and the lack of the daily commute was still a joy.
Fast forward to Christmas, the house had lights and a tree, but the real meaning of Christmas became clear: no more Zoom meetings for at least a week. Not just silent nights, but silent days. Stepping into the miserable dark, wet, cold January and February, ‘Groundhog Day’ syndrome set in. The prospect of a break in routine was alluring.
So back in the office this week, the camaraderie that comes with being stuck in a confined space with colleagues was palpable; humanity with all our habits wonderfully endearing. The grumblings about the office heating, no batteries for the wireless keyboard, the japes about who altered my chair settings. And it’s about the coffee – always the coffee. We all want to get back to the office, to work, laugh – and drink coffee together.
But why is coffee so important? The first coffee house was opened in London in 1652 by a Greek merchant, Pasqua Roseé , who had grown fond of the drink while trading in Turkey. Soon writers, journalists, artists and anybody who wanted to share their thoughts would gather in these places. By the beginning of the C18th, there were hundreds of cafes, and they all shared certain characteristics – access to newspapers, ideas and the thoughts of people declaiming on a variety of subjects. Many of these features were described in the diaries of Samuel Pepys.
The coffee houses became hotbeds of innovation. The first stocks and shares were traded in a London coffeehouse, Britain’s insurance industry was formed in Lloyds coffee house, Isaac Newton and his contemporaries frequented the coffee houses near the Royal Society. What drove the rapid growth of such places were exactly the same forces we see in the creation of cafés, agile office designs and coworking spaces today. It is the creation of a community of people who can come together in a shared experience. Having good coffee fuels that experience.
As a result, one of the special aspects about our office culture is the investment in an expensive coffee machine. There is no doubt that our team runs on coffee. As Aleksa said one morning, Life without coffee is like something without something … sorry, I haven’t had any coffee yet. Eric is equally an aficionado about the right coffee: Decaf coffee only works if you throw it at people.
Meanwhile Austin, a new hire, also has the bean, sorry, the bug: The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks. But when we all met up for a social distanced day in the office this week, the coffee machine – a JURA Z6 for those to whom knowing is important – stopped working.
Now, we had more research and reviews inspected for the purchase of this machine than I had dates before I proposed to my wife. For the Pulse Extraction Process (‘P.E.P.’, apparently), innovation leader JURA took its inspiration from the world’s best baristas. The result is a revolutionary technology that optimises the extraction time, allowing even short specialty coffees like lungo barista and espresso to be prepared with an intensity and breadth of aromas like never before.
The Z6 moves into completely new territory, taking the automatic specialty coffee machine to the next level. This state-of-the-art generation of coffee machines is an impressive showcase of Swiss innovation. It achieves a new standards of quality across the whole spectrum of specialty coffees, from the short, fiery ristretto to the popular, mellow flat white.
Sorry, I got carried away there, remembering the pitch meeting the team gave me with features and benefits.
Now in normal circumstances this coffee breakdown would have made barely a ripple in the great sea of life, we would have simply secured at-desk deliveries from one of the many splendid coffee houses in Manchester. But these are challenging times. We’re only in the office a couple of days a week, so the ripple was a shockwave to the sensibilities, and for hours it was all anyone was talking. It even came up on the general slack channel and mentioned on a client google hangout call. Do you remember where you were when the coffee machine stopped working?
I don’t drink coffee. It gives me headaches and indigestion. I agree with whoever organised the 1674 Women’s Petition Against Coffee, in which they complained that this abominable, heathenish liquor has eunucht our husbands. Eunucht is a bit strong but headaches, definitely headaches. Now I just drink 19 cups of tea a day and my testicles are fine, thank you for asking.
Everyone else in the team drinks coffee. In fact, I’d say they have to drink coffee. Aleksa and Eric expresso maniacs. James consumes flat whites like it’s last day on Earth; Guy, Elliot, Joey, Austin, Ayden – well, they go down the buttons on the machine for variety: cappuccino; caffè latte; caffè barista; lungo barista; Espresso doppio; macchiato; latte macchiato. Without it they would grind to a halt. I thank you.
Of course, if I drank coffee, we’d all-be-in-this-crisis-together. But we weren’t so it led to bit of a ruckus when I showed low-level emotional intelligence and empathy. Was this a crisis? No, it was a mild inconvenience in the day. Of course, I wasn’t as unsympathetic as the former head of KPMG, Bill Michaels, was last week to say ‘stop moaning’ and ‘stop playing the victim’, but it could have turned into a Poll Tax riot c1990 and effigies of me hung around the office.
There was a looming presence stood next to my desk. The coffee machine has stopped working announced James, as if he was in his final scene of his final appearance in Game of Thrones. Drama. Oh, I replied, sipping my jasmine fragranced lapsongsouchang tea. This, I realised with a speed and dexterity brought about by the sound of silence echoing the office, was a wholly inadequate response. I hastily arranged a look of grave concern and backed it up with Oh no, what a nightmare!
So, what are you going to do? said James, standing with the presence of Richie McCaw at the back of a line-out. But two seconds later he cracked, eyes twitching, and he began scratching himself all over, the withdrawal symptoms kicking in. Let’s take a breath I offered in my most mindfulness podcast sounding voice. You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages, I said.
This just seemed to make the silence louder. I’ll make us a cup of tea and see what can be done. I left him mumbling incoherently. I’ve seen Trainspotting. He’ll be all right in a few days I figured. But this had the opposite effect. Of course, he didn’t want tea, that was for middle-aged people, he’s a hipster, complete with scrawny facial hair. He wanted coffee. He needed coffee. Give him coffee.
Now I know what you’re thinking, an act of kindness was called for here, no questions asked. But that’s far too much of a philosophically arduous leap straight to the point of the greater good in this situation. I mean, it’s not as if there was a shortage of wireless iPhone charging points in the office.
Tea and sympathy. Always worked for me. I hid in the meeting area of the office, sheltering from the rapidly decaffeinating team. I needed to put myself in their cups, sorry, shoes. How would I feel if the kettle stopped working? How would I feel without my apple tea? What if the tea strainer went AWOL? Right now, I’d be inconsolable, distraught.
I knew what I had to do. For selfless reasons, I would lead the team out of their dark corner. I reached for my inner Shackleton. We would borrow the cafetiere from the shared workspace until we could order another ridiculous expensive new coffee JURA Z6 machine from Amazon. I knew we’d probably end up with the Jura Z6i with Bluetooth, google hangouts and Spotify built in.
I stepped out ready to help my team. But they weren’t hunched over their desks, shaking and sweating with withdrawal symptoms. No, I found them back gathered around the coffee machine. Must be some type of ritual I thought, paying your respects. But they weren’t silent, they were bright eyed and happy. Buzzing even. You’re drinking coffee again I said, O yes, the machine wasn’t broken after all, it was a dodgy plug, so we’ve changed the socket and, well, it’s back in business.
And the remainder of the afternoon became like the Running of The Bulls fiesta in Pamplona – without the bulls you understand – combined with a New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, a festival of sound and fun. Relays to the machine, socially distanced queuing like you see outside the chippy, and a level of banter and noise in the office returned, before happy, smiling faces headed off home, C8H10N4O2 infused heads, hearts and minds.
But joking aside about this episode, the essential moving parts of any organisation are the people – as Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. I’ve long been interested in entrepreneurial cultures and how you create the conditions to spark a venture, based on the connectivity of the people. So, alongside the coffee, we have also adopted a concept from Sweden, ‘fika’ to make the coffee sharing an axis in our day. Fika is an experience and unique word at the heart of Swedish life and work, pronounced ‘fee-ka’.
According to the Swedish Culture website, Fika is much more than having a coffee. It is a social phenomenon, a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time. Fika is a combination of the Swedish colloquial word for cafe – fik – and coffee – kaffe. Making time for fika is so sacred to Swedes that it’s built into many employee contracts.
We use fika time to cultivate an almost tactile sense of connection. Every day, after the early stand-up, we have fika time. We huddle around a table, have a coffee (or tea!) , and just be with each other. We chat about anything and everything but work. Friday was about James’ pending house move; how Eric’s son Ivan was coming on with his swimming lessons; why was Aleksa neglecting his desk cactus?; Tom’s obsession with 3D printing. We also got loud about renewing our office Spotify list.
Fika and coffee in the office is good for mental and physical wellness, offering a period of calmness in a busy schedule. it also helps us to stay focused – have a break, come back refreshed and look at things from a different perspective. It’s an opportunity to come together for simple social interaction, an aspect of work that is incredibly important.
I’m never going to be a work-from-home evangelist, I find it hard flying solo at home with just my own voice and ‘notes to self’ for the majority of the working day. I can’t be my best in my jogging pants, sat in splendid isolation, trying to juggle video conference calls between trips to the fridge, and playing indoor football with the dog.
So when you get back to the office, to enable your team to enjoy the atmosphere of togetherness, the chemistry of connection, and the feel-good factor of collaboration remember this: it’s always about the coffee.