How can coffee with a stranger improve productivity?

Looking for ways to make your organization more productive? Coffee is a great place to start.

September 21, 2016

By: Gary Lloyd (Gardeners Not Mechanics) & Michael Soto (Spark Collaboration)

A major US bank asked MIT to help them understand why the performance of their call center teams varied so much.

To investigate the problem, MIT gave each call center team member a special badge that monitored their physical interactions with other team members. But the badges didn’t capture the content of the conversations. Instead, they captured who talked to who, their body language and their energy levels.

Professor Sandy Pentland explains that after looking at the data collected from the badges, “we advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time”. In other words, so people would talk to each other more.

After following the suggested change, the bank found that the average call handling time reduced by more than 20% for lower-performing teams. And that, the bank calculated, would translate into a $15 million a year productivity increase, when rolled out to all 10 call centers.

Sandy Pentland says that his research, in a wide range of company sizes and types, shows that the level of interaction between people accounts for 50% of the variation between poorly performing groups and highly performing groups.

“What that means”, says Pentland, “is that interaction between people accounts for more variation than everything else put together”.

But crucially he adds, in a time of increasing digital collaboration, “study after study shows that the most important, delicate complex stuff happens face to face or sometimes over the phone. It’s not email, it’s not written documents.”

It’s not about what is communicated, it’s about how. It’s the tone of voice and the micro body language that builds relationships and trust. Just think about how often tone of voice is misjudged by the recipient of a digital message!

Furthermore, creating new connections between people in organizations is like creating new neural pathways in our brains. But instead of increasing individual intelligence, we are increasing an organization’s intelligence.

So, how can you put this knowledge to work?

One of us (Michael) helped design Randomised Coffee Trials in 2012 at the UK innovation foundation, Nesta. Each month people were paired with someone else from the organization, that they didn’t already know and encouraged to grab coffee together. But its simplicity is deceptive and its impact significant. Accolades have come from far and wide, including:

  • Helen Bevan, Chief Transformation Officer for the UK’s National Health Service is a fan. She lists Randomised Coffee Trials, at #3 on her list of top tips for change. Coming from someone responsible for change in an organization that employs a staggering 1.6 million people, from brain surgeons to chefs, with a budget of £198 billion, it’s worth taking notice.
  • Tim Leberecht, entrepreneur and author of the international bestseller The Business Romantic, highlighted Randomised Coffee Trials in In the Age of Loneliness: Connections at Work Matter as one of six techniques to “encourage more moments of connection between co-workers.”
  • The Inaugural North American Employee Engagement Awarded ‘International Project of the Year’ to the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent for their massive, global Randomised Coffee Trials initiative powered by Spark Collaboration (the software platform Michael developed to make it even easier to run Randomised Coffee Trials)

But you don’t have to be in a formal leadership role to make your organization a better place to work. There’s an old saying that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. You can just get on with it. Set up a schedule for people that don’t know each other to have a coffee together. Make yourself a star at zero cost to the organization!

If you do decide to give it a go, however, we have three important tips for you. Think about it like a gardener would. First you have to cultivate the ground. Second, you need to sow the seeds. And third, you need to nurture what grows.

1. Cultivating the ground

Skip this step at your peril. You’ve got an idea but you can’t go it alone. Getting colleagues to participate requires a different approach to the familiar “getting buy-in” approach for yet another leadership initiative.

Whereas leadership might be interested in building interpersonal networks to promote knowledge management, employee engagement and innovation – this might not exactly excite your colleagues and instead might sound like yet another task you’ve put on their plate.

A better approach will be to describe this simply as an opportunity to meet co-workers. Often times people are eager to meet new colleagues but don’t have a good way of doing it, and here’s their answer.

Rest assured that pitching this as a social initiative won’t dampen the productivity benefits, since Pentland’s work has shown that what matters most are the patterns of interaction not so much what people talk about, so as long as you can get people talking that’s a huge step.

2. Sowing the seeds

The next step is to get the word out about the new initiative. Not every seed will fall on fertile ground in the first instance.

Many times new initiatives such as these are launched with a single big bang and then blamed for lackluster participation when in reality people are busy. They may have missed the all staff meeting when it was announced, or had every intention of getting back to that registration email, but haven’t.

You need to keep sowing.

3. Nurture what grows

People may have heard of the initiative but still remain skeptical. For these people it isn’t about just giving them another reminder. To win them over, you need to turn to your early adopters, nurture them and raise them on a pedestal for all to see.

Send out updates with the (hopefully ever growing) number of people participating, and make special mention of any senior leaders who are involved that might attract others. A great illustration of this is the First Follower Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy video.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for ways to make your organization more productive, coffee is a great place to start. But to do it right, make sure to approach it with the mindset of a gardener.