"Don't Skimp on Coffee": A CTO's Plea

Unsure of whether to take the job? Try checking the office coffee situation.

I'm hooked on coffee. So is my career.

When I walked in to the DoSomething.org offices for the first time, I took stock of the airy, fun loft office filled with Hello Kitty paraphernalia and Tron quotes, but still felt very hesitant to work as a CTO in the not-for-profit world. But then, passing through the kitchen, I saw the coffee gear.

An Aeropress, pourovers, two single-cup French presses, a good grinder, a Breville kettle, fresh beans, even a scale. My heart settled: This place had coffee geeks.

If you’re looking for an office Rosetta Stone, a way to assess company culture across industries, coffee is it. I learned this during my time at a big magazine publisher five years ago, where I'd worked as both application architect and advocate of drinkable java. The coffee was good enough at first: high-budget Keurig cups boasting a variety fair-trade coffees. But, a year into the job, management stopped supplying decent coffee, leaving us with a scant supply of lower-tier K Cups. Staff morale, especially among developers, plummeted. I reacted by dedicating a drawer of my desk to my own gear, including a Hario hand grinder and beans from Oren's Daily Roast.

Other employees noticed that I was brewing small batches of delicious coffee, and insisted on both an intro to my Aeropress and a sample of the results. I showed by example that good coffee is worth the time: even though this new routine took a few minutes longer, I was doing great work, and soon got a promotion and a raise.

At the same time, though, I made plans to leave. The coffee cutoff was a leading indicator of more bad decisions upper management was about to make: laying off important staff, gutting IT management, and leaving us who remained feeling that this ship was not only rudderless, but also sinking.

Even well-funded and stable companies show their hand with coffee. I winced recently when a friend and fellow tech manager spoke of staffing up for a major, two-year software project as her employer started requiring staff to bring their own K-cups for the Keurig machine. Good luck recruiting for that gig! She’s trying to compensate by buying the good coffee herself for the kitchen. This may endear her to her staff, but each bag she lugs in will only highlight the gap between the organization's leadership and its employees.

Coffee and the Social Office

Coffee is a pick-me-up drink, of course, and a common adjunct to your morning email and the afternoon break. But the making and drinking of it are more than that: They're a ritual that millions of people share, a chance for workers to step away from the day's meetings, get a short respite from their screens and talk to each other.

Coffee is a fundamentally social brew. Since its introduction to 17th-century Europe, a huge part of its allure has been that it's the one drink a crowd can take in over conversation and stay sober.

Beyond just consuming, brewing coffee is a bit of kitchen chemistry that calms the mind, a casual ceremony for the office crowd. Since joining DoSomething.org in 2013, I’ve encouraged the staff to take five or ten minutes and enjoy the process, to relax while they heat water and grind beans.

Since I started, we've added more gear: A Chemex brewer, a new kettle, and a ceramic Hario pourover. (We have Keurig machines too, if you're in a hurry.) We maintain a steady supply of good beans, including subscriptions with LA coffee uber-geeks Tonx.org and NYC mavens Joyride Coffee. The workplace cup is an affordable luxury.

Get Your Priorities Straight

What does it say to your staff if you stop funding coffee breaks? Or, just as bad, if you provide cut-rate, stale coffee from the office supply store? It's a drastic move, cheaping out on something that is so basic and so affordable. It creates what Norman Mailer called "poor spiritual ecology." It makes employees wonder what's next on the chopping block. (And, honestly, what is the next step? Chairs? Middle management? Toilet paper?)

And then what does your staff do? They leave the building. Regularly. For a while. How much productive time are you losing in a month? The twice-a-day Starbucks run is the modern smoke break, except that companies never supplied cigarettes in the first place. (And coffee's actually good for you.)

Despite my own experience, I didn't connect the dots between a coffee culture and recruiting until recently, when I saw the jobs page for Paperless Post that boasts how many ways they have to brew. Good on them for recognizing coffee culture as a perk. Nowadays, our coffee corner is part of the office tour. We show off our Chemex like Don Draper’s whiskey decanters.

[Image: Flickr user Lucia Sanchez]

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5 Comments

  • Matt, you are spot on!

    Both 'Mike' and 'Heard You Say What?' have a perspective on these types of employee benefits that won't last because people like me and my younger peers are demanding benefits like this by choosing not to work for companies with terrible work environments. I know large companies may not be able to execute this, but for me and other small companies, an office coffee supplier like My Coffee Pub (http://www.mycoffeepub.com/corporate-coffee-subscription) can make a big difference.

  • Mike Fiermonte

    This is a nice perk to have at a smallish company. But once you get into larger companies that have share holders (like where I work). It doesn't necessarily make financial sense. Before my employer axed their free coffee/tea/hot cocoa program, they were spending about 1 million a year, across all us corp locations(only 3). People were pretty much drinking it just because it was free, as plenty of people complained about the "taste" while continuing to drink it.

    Personally i'd much rather us be able to keep(or hire) 20 employees at 50k each, than to watch John Smith guzzle down several cups of coffee, just because its free.

    But I guess that's why he's a CTO, and not a CFO

  • Dumbest. Article. Ever. I guess as the commenter below notes you can extrapolate for your given comfort of choice.

    FYI- Leo Burnett had free smokes in bowl for anyone working on the PM account/floor... if you can think it, it's probably happened...