The coffee club theory of departmental sociability

Hannah Dee (13 January 2010)

There seem to be three types of coffee system in university departments.  Type one, is a completely top-down system, in which a central body maintains a machine that you have to put money in for a cuppa; sometimes there's an electronic payment system, offering discounts to staff, but if the coffee runs out or the machine breaks down you've had it. In type two places there are coffee clubs, where staff chip in and share the cost of purchase, but it's generally informal. If the coffee runs out, someone goes and gets some more. And then there's the third kind of system, which isn't really a system at all. Each individual has a pot of instant on their desk - if your pot runs out, you get your own replacement.

the type of coffee system is a good predictor of departmental sociability

In my (limited) experience, the type of coffee system is a good predictor of departmental sociability.  Type one departments have some organised events (Christmas parties, maybe a departmental hike or awayday). Type two departments are more likely to have informal social stuff (the Friday night pub run, the friendly 5-a-side match, the walking clubs). Type three departments do have things going on, but you have to talk to the right people to find them.  I'm a fan of type two departments, myself. I think that socialising with colleagues is good, and I think that a lot of staff development can happen outside of the formal setting. I've learned all sorts of things in pubs, on departmental hikes, or watching the staff-student cricket match.

So who buys the coffee in your department? Does my theory hold up?  If it does, I think I might have come up with another question to ask at job interviews...



Pam Wain
Hmm -- I remember the time the departmental secretaries who ran the coffee club decided to quietly put us all on decaff. We didn't appreciate it.

perhaps he is being naive to think that coffee can really break down the walls between deep-set disciplinary cultures!

Simon Smith
Earlier this week I attended a conference about interdisciplinarity. One of the speakers directs a Research Centre on climate change, which is about to move into new premises. He explained, only half in jest, that one of the reasons he was looking forward to this was that the new building is to have a single, centrally-positioned coffee bar, with the intention of encouraging the natural scientists and the social scientists who belong to the Centre to socialise with each other. But perhaps he is being naive to think that coffee can really break down the walls between deep-set disciplinary cultures! Can anyone cite any precendents?

Matthew Salois
My department has a "fix your own" coffee approach (type 3?), but we do usually have coffee together every morning (though I usually drink tea). In addition, we have regular social events like Christmas parties, Spring BBQs, special occasion dinners (e.g., a new lecturer being hired) and a trip to the pub typically every Friday. I am not sure if this fits in with your theory, but I do find the social aspect of morning coffee valuable. I don't think coffee can break down the walls between and within departments, but I do think it is a good indicator of the walls that may exist. I may add this question to my list of interview questions too!

Tennie Videler
Very interesting point! I used to work in an institute which held its canteen in high esteem- it was on the top floor, with generous space and everyone made use of it. Talking to people in other groups was very much encouraged, with senior academics regularly joining random groups. Skipping coffee or lunch was frowned upon. I think it worked to encourage collaborations. We had a great christmas party every year but apart from that it was no more sociable than other places I worked. In the fix your own place I worked in coffee breaks were not all that sociable. I have also experienced a hybrid between fix your own and a canteen (the canteen had funny opening hours to allow its staff breaks at say lunch) which was otherwise a type II place (pub on a Friday). So not sure the correlation holds up all the time. My first experience of office coffee outside academia is very positive: we have a fabulous coffee machine and as we hotdesk, making coffee for that day's neighbours is a real bonding ritual..... Cuppa, anyone?



Sarah Davies

Simon - I used to be in an interdisciplinary department which provided free tea and coffee for all its staff, in a common room, twice a day so as to encourage cross-fertilisation and general friendliness. Inevitably, the technical and administrative staff, the research students, and the physical and social science lecturers would all sit in separate corners...


I think your model needs to take into account departmental geography

Nick Dickens
I like the theory - although I don't agree with it. I think it might be strongly influenced by layout of the buildings, etc (let's call it departmental geography). We are mostly a type 3 with our own pots, although some rooms are type 2, yet are a very sociable with both type 1 and type 2 events. I think this is down to the layout of the department - it is on 2 floors of a long, thin building. Each divided into offices of 1-6 people. These all run in a line on one side of the building, so we are separated and this is why individuals have their own coffee - or share within rooms. There is also a central machine but it is 4 floors down, so only really used at lunch/official break times. I used to be in a more open-plan type office, with a type 2 coffee club, yet this was definitely a more clique-based type 3 social environment...which is why I think your model needs to take into account departmental geography. But I like the idea.

Martyn Rittman
About a year ago I moved from a department with a big, fully funded, recently refurbished coffee room to one with an unused, basement room with a couple of old, cruddy kettles. For me it made a big difference to the feel of the department and in the new place it seems people are much less open - even when it comes to letting 'outsiders' use their group's equipment. Two days ago I got an email saying the coffee room will be refurbished to encourage informal contact between academics. I think this is a great idea and I really hope it's used, rather than everyone continuing to hide in their offices with their own kettles.

Dan Black
I think that when it comes to sociability in departments there are two factors: the type of social events and the amount. I think I would vaguely agree with your hypothesis, but I think it is a predictor of the type of social event. I have been in a department with full provision of coffee, but was rather anti-social (due, I think, to geographical reasons). I also think there is a tendency (in my experience) for people in type 2 departments to know each other a little better than usual.

Hannah Dee
It seems that my theory does not account for the evidence! Do you think it is worth adapting or amending it to take into account geographical features and coffee quality, or should I abandon it?

Sarah Davies
No, take it forward and - in true scientific style - amend the theory to fit the additional evidence. It seems - given the number of comments on this thread - that this is an issue dear to many of our hearts. It might be an interesting question for any further surveys on research staff experiences?