Is Coffee Really Toxic to Workplace Productivity?

May 26, 2016
7 Min Read
Is Coffee Really Toxic to Workplace Productivity?

Is Coffee Really Toxic to Workplace Productivity?In the Observer, writer Isaac Morehouse made a provocative proposition: the habit of grabbing coffee with colleagues or partners “just to chat” is killing our productivity.

“Let’s grab coffee and chat.”

According to Isaac Morehouse, those five words can be damning. Morehouse’s opinion is that when you become known for doing interesting things, like starting a business or writing intriguing articles, lots of people want to have coffee with you. Most of the time, he says, it’s a bad idea.

Morehouse continues:

“Face to face meetings can be valuable. There’s an energy that you don’t get any other way. But the cost is very high, and it’s rare to gain that energy with a stranger. Unless you know from interactions over email, social media, or phone that you and this person have mutual interests and will both be spurred to beneficial action by a coffee meeting, avoid it.”

“It’s not that coffee isn’t fun. That’s the problem. It is fun. But what’s scarce is conversation that leads directly to productivity. You get a quick high from talking about big ideas with cool people over hot drinks. Hammering out the next steps and taking them is not as much fun.”

“It’s flattering to be asked to coffee by someone who thinks your stuff is great. But it almost always eats away a huge chunk of your time and energy with very little in the way of a tangible outcome. You can feel like you’re doing something because your calendar is booked with coffee and conversation and you don’t have time for stuff. But busyness is not business.”

Oh man, he is so right.

Coffee costs more money than a Starbucks Venti

Actually, when new contacts ask me to have coffee – or worse – ask to “pick my brain” (am I the only one who hates that phrase?), I hesitate. I know that these meet-ups are a drain on my productivity. For one thing, they usually take place in downtown Chicago – about a half hour subway ride from where I live and work. So, if you factor in at least an hour for coffee and an hour and half travel time to get to and from the coffee, you’ve probably eaten up half your work day.

And when you work for yourself, the saying “time is money” has a lot of significance.

I also have to admit that 90 percent of the time, grabbing coffee isn’t worth it from a business perspective. This is because generally speaking, people want to get information out of me and take advantage of my knowledge. They aren’t doing it maliciously, they simply haven’t thought about how the meeting can be mutually beneficial.

And therein lies my advice for people who wish to use coffee (and similar types of one-on-ones) as a productivity enhancer rather than a productivity drain.

First and foremost, take Morehouse’s point about action seriously. When you set up coffee with someone, communicate clearly what you intend to talk about, and what actions will take place immediately following the conversation. Brainstorms are fine, but take the next step and use the time with the other person to get your plan of attack off and running. In saving you a second meeting and numerous back-and-forth emails, you will have actually used the coffee date to drive productivity instead of detract from it.

But everyone says I should network!

Look, there’s nothing wrong with setting up coffee to build a relationship or get to know someone better, but if you are employed full-time, you need to keep these to a minimum. For most people (with the possible exception of salespeople), having coffee meet-ups all day will negatively impact the real work you’re able to get done. I was grateful for Morehouse’s piece because I don’t think most professionals are realistic about this.

When you do ask for a relationship-building or networking meeting, make sure you’ve thought carefully about what’s in it for the other person. Understanding that you’re probably getting more out of the conversation than they are, make the meet-up as convenient as possible and don’t go over the allotted time.

Returning to the purposeful meeting

As a business culture, we’re moving toward greater informality. This is not always a good thing. I’ve found that when you want to move actual business with actual financial implications forward and you need someone else’s POV to do so, it’s often better just to meet in someone’s office or set up a call if the person is remote. As with any meeting, this one should have an agenda that is shared in advance. Yes, it lacks the casual and fun vibe of coffee. But remember, there’s a reason work is called work. If it were always fun, it would be leisure time and you wouldn’t get paid for it.

What do you think? Will you be cutting back on workday coffee dates this year?

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