A Tale of Two Coffee Cultures

Latest figures from a large survey of workplaces (the so called Leesman Index) suggest that tea, coffee and refreshment facilities are important to 91% of employees. This sparked a debate on Twitter among some of the workplace consultancy community and made me think again of one of the workplaces I studied in depth for my PhD – a research institute in Germany with an international mix of researchers – and the interesting coffee cultures going on in that place. I’ve never really written about this, so here we go.

The Research Institute was accommodated in a purpose-built and well-designed office building comprising three floors in total: the ground floor was dedicated to shared facilities (large foyer, seminar rooms, library, canteen), while the two (almost identical) upper floors hosted around 180 scientists and administrators in single and double cellular offices, connected by wide corridors and an open and inviting staircase. Facilities such as seminar rooms, seating areas and round tables, whiteboards, printers, kitchens and a common room were widely distributed on the two upper floors (see sample floor plan below).

Sample floor plan of the Institute with kitchen and coffee bar

Sample floor plan of the Institute with kitchen and coffee bar

Each of the two upper floors had a kitchen, relatively centrally located next to the central staircase, offering tea and coffee making facilities, a whiteboard and a round table for discussions. Each floor also had a brand new coffee bar, which was introduced when the building was extended some years ago. The coffee bars were located where the old building met the new wing, and therefore were placed in a slightly more segregated location than the kitchens. In contrast to the kitchen, which was an enclosed room (with doors always open), the coffee bar was placed in the corridor and was thus widely visible.

Another important difference between the two facilities was the type of coffee available and the ways to pay for it. In the kitchens, traditional German-style coffee was on offer, where hot water drips through a filter with ground coffee. One researcher in the institute bought the ground coffee and asked for monthly contributions from fellow coffee-lovers based on a tally sheet that was fixed to the cupboards in the kitchen, where everyone counted their coffee consumption (see below). The bars meanwhile were fitted with a fancy cafe-latte-cappuccino type coffee machine, thus offering a different style and type of coffee. I’m not a massive coffee drinker myself, but was told that the coffee from the bars was very high quality and really nice. You had to pay for a drink with a token (worth 0.40€) that was sold by another researcher in the institute in larger batches.

Two different coffee facilities: enclosed kitchen with drip-through coffee and tally sheet versus open and visible coffee bar with fancy choices

Two different coffee facilities: enclosed kitchen with drip-through coffee and tally sheet versus open and visible coffee bar with fancy choices

It is interesting now to look at patterns of usage: which of the two facilities is more popular – the centrally located kitchen or the fancy coffee bar? And who uses which coffee point – so are users of either facility evenly distributed across the building (which would suggest people go for their preferred style of coffee) or are users of either facility clustered in space (which would suggest people rather go to the closest location)? And a final question: do usage patterns allow unpacking attractors and incentives – so is it possible to distinguish between those driven by choice of coffee versus payment system versus location, versus other spatial affordances (e.g. visibility or enclosure)?

To answer these questions I can draw on short interviews led with 101 staff members of the institute, where I’ve asked people (among other things) which facilities they used and how often (per day) they frequented them.

Split of users of the different refreshment facilities in the Institute

Split of users of the different refreshment facilities in the Institute

The overall statistics on usage patterns of the two refreshment facilities are quite telling already: 11% of the users do not use the kitchens or coffee bars at all (an amazingly similar figure to the Leesman Index data, where 9% of office occupants said they didn’t care for refreshment facilities); 16% of users exclusively went to the kitchens while 53% of users exclusively made use of the coffee bars; another 20% of users stated they frequented both types of facilities.

So at first sight, the coffee bars appear a lot more popular than the kitchens. However, if we look at the split between numbers of people using the kitchens (36 in total) and those using the coffee bars (74 in total), the ratio of usage is roughly 1:2, so the coffee bars indeed are proving more popular with the researchers at the Institute. If we assume that every time someone goes to a refreshment facility they also pick up a coffee (which is probably overestimated, but doesn’t matter too much in this case, because we are comparing the ratios), then the two kitchens provide 84 cups of coffee per day (or 2.3 cups per person), whereas the two coffee bars produce 171 cups of coffee per day (again, 2.3 cups per person). This means there is no difference in coffee addiction between those drinking drip-through coffee and those preferring a cappuccino.

It gets even more interesting to investigate who uses which coffee making facility, since there are quite some differences in usage patterns to be found depending on the location of someone’s office.

Split of users of the different refreshment facilities in the Institute by office location

Split of users of the different refreshment facilities in the Institute by office location

Researchers with a temporary office in one of the guesthouses (i.e. in a separate building next to the main Institute) mostly do not bother at all to come to the Institute for coffee (71% of people). They seem to be getting their caffeine fix from elsewhere. The remaining 29% use the coffee bars only, so it seems that if people actually have a long way to travel anyway, coffee preferences prevail (which means the coffee bars win).

People with offices in the A wings have the highest percentage of kitchen usage (32% and 24% use the kitchens exclusively, and 42% / 57% use both types of facilities). Since those located in the A wings pass the kitchen anyway on their way to the coffee bar, proximity to the kitchen (and therefore human laziness) obviously come into play and render the kitchens more attractive in comparison to the overall percentages for the whole Institute. Exactly the same phenomenon strikes for researchers with offices in the C and D wings – the coffee bars are much closer than the kitchens and are passed on the way to the kitchens, so that kitchen use drops to 0-9% and usage of the coffee bars rises to 80-90%.

For people with offices in the B wings a more mixed picture emerges: the coffee bar is very popular on the first floor (73% of users) despite people having to pass the kitchen on the way there, whereas usage of the coffee bar is more like the Institute-wide average on the second floor of the B wing (52%). This difference between the wings 1B and 2B could have its origin in nationalities: a high proportion of Germans were occupying wing 2B, who may have liked the traditional German-style coffee more than the international crowd, who may have found the different choices offered by the coffee bars more appealing.

The fact that the kitchens are less popular in the B wings than in the A wings overall (although distance does not make much of a difference here) could be down to the directionality of walking: the kitchen is on a straight line of walking from the A wings (and so appears like a natural choice), but is only reached after one turn of direction from the B wings and once that turn is made, the coffee bars are in sight, too.

So in essence it seems coffee preferences play a role: the coffee bars were the preferred type and style of coffee at the Institute, but some still favoured the drip-through coffee and of course the informality and flexibility that came with this choice: just put your name on a list, make a tally and pay later (rather than prepare in advance and buy / store tokens). However, location was also important: in a lot of cases, the closest facility was chosen. Maybe this is also influenced by the tea drinkers (for whom it doesn’t matter that much where hot water comes from) or the ones picking up just a glass of water. There are some limitations to this proximity-rule, however. If an attractor is attractive enough (i.e. a ‘better’ cup of coffee, judged by the taste-buds of the majority, waiting at the end), a lot of people appear willing to walk slightly longer distances in general, but only to a degree. Good coffee too far away (for instance for those researchers with offices in the guesthouse) draws only the very dedicated cappuccino-addicts.

What is fascinating in any case is how two different coffee cultures flourished at the Institute, offering choice to people: not only which type of coffee they would like to drink, but also which local setting they would like to pick up their hot beverage from: enclosed and cosy kitchen or open bar. As a consequence this setup also offered choice who to meet, encounter and hang out with, since each facility created its own usage dynamic and network of people – on the one hand the ones sitting down with their cup of coffee and scribbling onto the whiteboard in the kitchen, and on the other hand the ones standing around the coffee bar, enjoying more random encounters through the high visibility of the openly located bar. This was reflected in a statement made by one of the leaders of a research group at the Institute, who said:

“A lot more discussions arise now through the new coffee machines, because you simply bump into each other there.”

How personal networks and whom to socialise with is a crucial factor also becomes apparent at the example of four single users who reported using both the first floor and the second floor coffee bars – a phenomenon that simply did not occur for the kitchens by the way, underlining again that the kitchens were seen by many as the easiest option and not a destination that is worth a longer journey.

In summary, this means that the collective patterns of usage of a refreshment facility are driven by at least four distinct factors, all coming together in a complex interplay of organisational cultures embedded in space: firstly, the quality of the offer of refreshments; secondly, location of the facility and proximity to someone’s office; thirdly, detailed spatial configuration, such as openness and visibility; and last but not least, the likelihood of meeting interesting people at those facilities and allowing personal networks to flourish.

Further and more academic reading (for those interested):

  • For a more detailed discussion of the Research Institute and its organisational cultures: Sailer, Kerstin (Forthcoming), ‘Organizational Learning and Physical Space – How Office Configurations Inform Organizational Behavior‘, in Peter Meusburger (Hg.), Learning Organizations: The Importance of Place for Organizational Learning (Knowledge and Space Vol 6; Heidelberg: Springer).
  • For a more in-depth discussion of organisational cultures and space: Sailer, Kerstin (2010), ‘The Space-Organisation Relationship. On the Shape of the Relationship between Spatial Configuration and Collective Organisational Behaviours‘. (Dissertation, TU Dresden, available online)
  • For more information on the role of attractors and how they drive movement flows in offices: Sailer, Kerstin (2007), ‘Movement in Workplace Environments – Configurational or Programmed?‘ in Ayse Semat Kubat et al. (Hg.), 6th International Space Syntax Symposium (Istanbul: ITU Faculty of Architecture), 068-1 – 068-14.

One thought on “A Tale of Two Coffee Cultures

  1. Pingback: ‘The Science of Who Sits Where at Work’ – A Spatial Perspective | spaceandorganisation

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