Smoking cigarettes, eating sweets, dropping litter, and drinking coffee

I was speaking to Olaf Lewitz at the awesome Oslo coach camp last week. We were discussing why drinking coffee doesn't create the same social dynamic as smoking cigarettes. I chatted with Geir Amdal too and quite by chance he mentioned he's given up smoking. And how approaching a work colleague and asking if they want to go outside for a smoke is not the same as asking if they want to go outside for a talk.

Then I remembered something Olve Maudal said to me recently. He said that kids being allowed to eat sweets on Sundays was not really about kids being allowed to eat sweets on Sundays at all. It was really about kids not being allowed to eat sweets on any day except Sunday. Similarly, apparently in the USA when you're driving along you sometimes see a big sign at the side of the road saying "Litter here" and then another sign a mile or so later saying "Stop littering". These signs are also not really about littering. They're about not littering in the places outside the designated littering zones.

There's a crucial difference between smoking and drinking coffee. Smokers tend to smoke in groups in designated areas because smoking is not allowed except in those areas. Coffee is different. Drinking coffee is, by default, allowed everywhere. When you want a coffee you walk to the coffee machine and make a cup of coffee. There's often no one else at the coffee machine so you take your cup of coffee back to your work desk. It is precisely this take-it-back-to-your-desk default which is why there is only rarely someone else at the coffee machine. It is a self-fulfilling dynamic.

If you want to encourage more social interaction between your team members here's what you might do:

  • Buy machines that make really good coffee.
  • Put them in a nice area with lots of space to congregate in.
  • Ban drinking coffee at work-desks.
The third step might seem a bit draconian. But it's vital. You could justify it on the grounds that spilling coffee onto expensive computers will waste money. But the real reason it to encourage developers to drink their coffee near the coffee machine. Together. To encourage communication.