We’re back in the office at Manchester Technology Centre now, usually face-to-face four days a week by a unanimous team decision, WFH when there’s a personal need or choice. The camaraderie that comes from closeness in a defined space with colleagues is palpable; humanity with all our habits, good and bad, is wonderfully endearing. The grumblings about the office heating, no batteries for the wireless keyboard, the japes about who altered my chair settings. But in reality, it’s all about the coffee. Always the coffee. We all want to get back to the office, to work, laugh. And drink coffee together.
As a result, one of the 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 Nyree also has the bean, sorry, the bug: The power of my mind is directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee I drink.
But this week there was a major crisis as 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 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 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 as a stopgap from one of the many splendid coffee houses in Manchester. But the ripple was a shockwave to the sensibilities, and for hours it was all anyone was talking about. 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, Rupert, Alan, Ayden, Nyree, Lucas– 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 unsympathetic, but it could have turned into a Poll Tax riot c1990 and effigies of me hung around the office had I not changed my mindset.
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 nonchalantly, sipping my jasmine tea. This, I quickly realised with a dexterity of thought 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, now holding the same intimidatory 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.
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 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 Specially Constructed 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 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 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 and give reassurance, credit card in hand. 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. 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, 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, C8 H10 N4 O2 infused heads, hearts and minds.
Coffee cultivates an almost tactile sense of connection, starting with the early stand-up huddle. We hunker around a table, have a coffee (or tea!), and just be with each other. We chat about anything and everything – and then work. Thursday 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 tsf.tech Spotify list.
As I said at the top of the blog, we’re in the office four days a week by choice. Our way of working is best described by Julia Hobsbawm, who has identified that rather than making a daily commute, people will choose where they work in thenowhereoffice Why Nowhere? Partly because we are in a liminal space between one phase of work and another, and partly because nowhere is an anagram of Here, now. Nothing is certain, everything is moving fast. The Nowhere Office is a positive place where purpose and meaning, where employees, shorn of the obligation to just show up, will no longer face what social historian Studs Terkel memorably called a Monday to Friday kind of dying.
So, what have we learned over these last few months about coming back to the office?
Hybrid working means a hybrid environment: digital and physical The physical office is an anachronism, the only space everyone needs to be is the internet. Physical communities are getting digitised – Amazon replace the Shopping Centre – and there’s some great things about that. However, the problem is you don’t see people on Amazon, you did at the shops. On Zoom, you create a hermetically sealed bubble of people. People need space and don’t want to work from home every day. The startup office must do something home can’t do.
Big Rocks Working from home has given more clarity about what’s important in our lives – the big rocks – family, friends, hobbies. Life priorities have come to the fore. You need to leverage your commitment to boundaries into the optimal work-life rhythm and integration to keep folks energised. Cultural cohesion is important for ensuring people feel connected. Startups like being part of a community, and it’s hard to get to know people over Zoom, and your bubbles become smaller. Zoom can have some pernicious effects.
It’s about rhythm, not balance I’ve never thought work-life balance was the right perspective, creating an optimal work-life rhythm should be the focus. Work-life balance is a temporary state especially in a startup where life is dynamic. Many have found a more sustainable and nurturing work-life rhythm, not losing time to commute or other frictions that come with office-based work. WFH some days will be faster, others slower. Nothing is permanent; you just need to be clear about the elements that inform your optimal life rhythm and integrate that with work.
Recognise different people have different needs Today’s offices are often an open sea of desks with a perimeter of meeting rooms and no personal offices. What creative people really want is a wall for sticky notes, whiteboarding and space to walk around and think, engineers want a totally different thing. We need to move toward multi-use spaces. When people gather physically, what matters is the social interaction and the learning. Make the office a collaboration hub.
We’ve eschewed the Orwellian routine of the office forever. Many startups had already adopted a hybrid, flexible model before Covid, embracing the freedom, space, and cost advantage of free-spirited working, but for us all there are lessons about leadership, human needs, habits, processes and automation. Shift the mindset from how your team works to where they work and focus on wellbeing not productivity.
I’m never going to be a work-from-home evangelist, what you gain in productivity, you lose in simple human connection. Team cohesion also suffers in fully remote work arrangements. I find it hard flying solo at home with just my own voice and ‘notes to self’. I can’t be my best sat in splendid isolation, juggling video conference calls, trips to the fridge or playing indoor football with the dog.
To enable your team to enjoy the physical and mental wellness benefits of connection in the office, create the space, but remember it’s always about the coffee, providing moments in time to come together. It also helps us to relax and also stay focused – have a break, come back refreshed and look at things from a different perspective. Indeed, measure the complexity of coding in coffee cups – this was a five-espresso algorithm. And if your JURA Z6 has a temporary malfunction or worse – have a Plan B to action.