The Coffee Connection
By Chelse Benham
The other day I ran into a friend of mine I had not seen in a while and we both
agreed it had been a long time. We fondly reminisced about the morning “coffee
central” ritual that had brought us together and all those who daily marched to the
third floor of our building for their morning java fix.
I work for one of the largest employers in the Valley; The University of Texas-Pan
American. Recently, the University has been rearranging offices to accommodate
for campus growth. As was expected, all offices on the third floor moved to the
Executive Tower and with them the small, but significant daily coffee ritual.
Student service replaced the offices and the people - and the industrial size
coffee machine? Well, I think it was retired.
There was something more taking place than filling up the cup at “coffee central.”
It gave people, who otherwise didn’t have much contact with each other, a
reason to meet, exchange pleasantries and in the process get to know one
another. It was a significant part of networking between the different offices. It
had a useful and important function. In essence, coffee central was about the
There is an adage in the training profession that more than 50 percent of all
learning occurs at the water cooler, or while employees are socializing at work
according to Internet Time Group in Berkeley, California. The "scuttlebutt," held
at the water cooler, coffee machine or in the commissary, provides a place to
build connections that become the underpinnings of work relationships and
According to the Word Detective Web site, the word “scuttlebutt” dates back to
the days of sailing ships. If a sailor wanted a drink of fresh water to quench his
thirst, he made his way to the "scuttlebutt," the ships' equivalent of today's water
cooler. The "scuttlebutt" was actually a wooden keg with a hole cut in its side,
used to hold the crew's daily ration of drinking water. Much like water coolers in
today's offices, the "scuttlebutt" aboard a ship served as an impromptu social
center and a place to trade the latest news. Over time, the word came to be
associated with rumor and gossip.
The office gathering place is not just for sharing information. That cup of coffee or
drink of water is significant of so much more. It is the place where people gather
to nurture relationships. The intrinsic value of socializing is found in the
networking accomplished during this daily ritual. Many of today’s most cutting
edge work environments endorse the “water cooler” activity.
From their humble roots in a garage to becoming the world’s leading internet
information search engine, Google owners, Larry Page and Sergey Brin make
every effort to create collaborative areas for their employees. Open floor
planning, sitting areas, free gourmet food, a daily volleyball game at noon and a
yearly ski trip for all employees are some of the innovative ways Page and Brin
keep their employees happy.
Tomas Matza in his article, Dotcom Deliverance at MetroActive.com, writes
“Never before has informal socializing been such a key part of office protocol on
an industry-wide scale(in dotcom businesses). Other perks like in-house pool and
ping pong tables, group dinners, bean-bag conference rooms, on-staff
masseuses and nap rooms suggest that the foundations beneath traditional
starched-white-collar business practices are shifting… these employee trips and
activities are hailed as effective ways to promote teamwork and trust.”
Encouraging co-workers to get to know each other is meant to introduce a more
human dimension to the workplace, increase office efficiency, and foster a sense
of enthusiasm for the daily grind. But there's more to these dotcom trips and
activities than stress-relief and bonding. In an industry constantly striving to
attract young talent, they are tools for recruiting as well as retaining employees.
Of course, the majority of employers do not have the resources to provide all
those perks to keep employee motivation and productivity high. However, most
workplaces still go to the opposite extreme, adhering to the starched-white-collar
corporate practice, by reducing naturally occurring socializing even as mounting
evidence suggests that it could be counterproductive in the long run.
A study at Bell Labs showed that among engineers a higher IQ did not correlate
with higher productivity. Initiative and networks counted the most – networks
composed of people who cultivated respect so they could trade knowledge with
each other. Active workplace communities use conversation to build trust. Yet in
the bottom-line industrial environment work-hour socializing and water cooler
chat is typically discouraged.
While socializing is natural and helps improve the work experience, remember
that you are being paid for your time. Everything in balance. If there is too much
socializing and work is not getting done or you have to stay at work longer to
complete your tasks then reducing the amount of socializing is necessary and
Furthermore, socializing is not meant to create cliques or a “we versus them”
situation. Although water cooler areas are meant to share information, it is not
prudent or professional to create mean spirited rumors and paranoia about office
policy or people. Within the best spirit of the water cooler environment, it is a
place to meet, greet, get to know other people and exchange information and
ideas. When it works in this way, it facilitates the bottom-line and improves the