I was in our company’s lunchroom the other day observing as some of my colleagues stopped by to have a cup of coffee. We have one of those pod coffee makers where you can select your caffeine of choice, which I happen to prefer over the shared coffee pot system.
The company coffee break is an American institution. According to historians, it was an outgrowth of social reform during the turn of the century to provide workers in factories a break room where they could get away for a few minutes from the daily drudge. There appears to be some dispute over which U.S. company originated this practice, but what is clear is that it began to be called a “coffee break” in 1952. That was the year the Pan-American Coffee Bureau ran an ad campaign with the slogan, “Give yourself a coffee break, and get what coffee gives to you.” What it gives workers, apparently, is a chemically induced energy boost, but perhaps more importantly, an opportunity to gather and discuss the organizational culture and provide some time to refresh themselves before having to refocus on the tasks at hand.
People are serious about their coffee. It’s one of those perks (pun intended) that happen to matter in the world of work. It’s also one of the benefits that companies tend to cut in a challenging economy as they scrutinize their spending. Taking away the free coffee is a sure sign to employees that business is bad and it can signal a change in their loyalty and whether or not they plan to stick around.
According to the National Coffee Association’s 2009 Coffee Drinking Trends Market Research Study, 54 percent of the overall U.S. adult population are coffee consumers with 18 percent drinking their coffee on the job. In another survey, this one sponsored by International Delight, there is specific data about coffee drinkers in the New York area. Thirty-five percent of the respondents said their workplace provides free coffee and three in 10 (28 percent) think it tastes great. Sixteen percent of New York coffee drinkers keep a favorite mug at work and two in 10 are irritated when they see someone else drinking from it.
I tend to read a lot of workplace blogs and judge whether or not the subject matters to people by how many of them add to the commentary. I found one about coffee customs in the office that generated a whopping 15 pages of responses, with 83 people voicing their say in just a 24-hour time period. One disgruntled employee wrote, “Management decided to save $300 a month by eliminating the coffee, but lost at least that much in lowered productivity and morale, since getting a cup meant leaving the building instead of swinging by the kitchen on your way back from a meeting. Was it really worth it?”
The U.S. Department of Labor notes that federal law does not require coffee breaks (or even lunch breaks for that matter). Still, an employer that offers such breaks and even provides the free java is giving their staff members a forum to build corporate camaraderie and the opportunity to bridge workplace generation gaps. Occupational psychologists say that a coffee break culture typically creates satisfied and productive employees, which ultimately impacts the bottom line.
But, if you think this coffee controversy is all nonsense, let me tell you about a sign I saw in a diner recently which read, “Don’t laugh at the coffee. Some day you, too, may be old and weak.”
Nancy Schuman is a vice president at Lloyd Staffing, headquartered in Melville, and is the author of eight how-to books on career guidance and job-search techniques. Lloyd Staffing offers temporary, contract and full-time employment services on a regional and national basis. Send your career-related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.