The Rise and Rise of Coffee

Steam it, cold brew it, pour it over ice – these days you don’t always have to stray too far to enjoy artisan, barista-crafted coffee when you’re in the office. The way we consume our coffee is becoming more advanced and its presence and diversity within the workplace is stronger than ever. There are few high street commodities that have a more significant presence than this caffeinated drink. While certain food fads come and go, coffee culture is guaranteed to stay embedded into work life.

The quality and type of provision varies from firm to firm, from DIY instant coffee and tea bags through to full-blown artisan barista-run coffee bars – but the reason for its omnipresence and why it is often offered for free or at a discounted price is consistent between all the companies – as an aid to drive productivity.

Grabbing a hot drink during work is cathartic, they’re provided for employees so that they can take a step away from their desks, socialise with colleagues and go back to their desks feeling refreshed and take on the task they’re working on. Companies are appreciating the importance of these casual collisions and are looking to the high street to inspire how they can bring the best offering into the workplace. But how much benefit is there in integrating the high street experience into the workplace? Will employees see the value and view it as a tool to help them work smarter, or just as a “bribe” to aid retention?

As the high street continues to be enveloped by premium independent coffee operators, consumers are ever more spoilt for choice. And not just choice, but great choices. Consumers are moving towards higher quality coffee with a rapid shift towards espresso-based drinks over the last 10 years, a trend particularly noticeable amongst the younger (millennial) workforce. The improved quality begs the question –can the workplace ever provide the same authentic experience, or will it always be a pale imitation? Attempting to bridge the gap between the high street coffee experience and the traditional kitchenette tea and coffee are the contract caterers, who are driven by fierce competition in the contract catering sector to provide increasingly more authentic experiences.

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Hospitality Consultant

We have to remember though, it is a three-way relationship between the employee, the employer and the caterer. The employer, ambitious and wanting to improve productivity, are keen to create a welcoming company culture which helps attract and retain star talent. The employee sees premium coffee service as a differentiator between companies and values the intangible benefits associated with communal working spaces and informal meetings areas, all of which are increasingly catered for by coffee service. And operators, seeking to win and hold on to long term contracts, emulate commercial hospitality experiences. Delivered effectively and in collaboration, the components of this relationship are driving greater prominence when it comes to the workplace coffee experience.

We’re seeing more and more caterers wanting to bring something unique and explore their ethical credentials, some are now investing in their own coffee bean, partnering and supporting growers and cooperatives in second and third world countries and then rolling out their product in as many of their contracts as possible. Some employers are also exploring this concept, offering a blend of coffee which has been crafted from employee surveys to best find and create a taste which resonates with them. This involves employees in the process and can make them want to grab a coffee from the workplace more than from a generic high street alternative. In a time where everyone wants to know where what they order comes from, this is a very relevant option.

There are of course, drawbacks of over consumption of coffee. Its long half-life means that caffeine can take up to 24hours to leave your body, which disrupts sleep and in turn affects your focus, memory and information process speed. Increasing the uptake of caffeine to alleviate tiredness can have a knock-on impact on adrenaline levels which can elevate stress levels and anxiety. In the workplace, when stress levels can already be high, coffee can exacerbate this stress.

Regardless, market data indicates that coffee consumption is only expected to increase. The UK branded coffee shop market, valued at around £280 million in 1999, has grown to £4billion in just under 20 years –that’s a 1,328% increase. Going forward, bespoke coffee experiences will be what drives the high street coffee market, but how relevant is that to the workplace? Can all organisations afford to employ trained baristas in their workplaces?

Whilst designing spaces which foster social interaction and coffee consumption can improve innovation and increase collaboration, the type and quality of coffee an organisation chooses to use is important as well. The provenance of coffee and how the product is sourced by a company can be an extension of their corporate ethos and sustainable identity in the views of their employees. But what if the coffee is not so great? A lack of attention by organisations in this area can backfire and cause a mistrust between employees and their employers. Some businesses may preach a certain ethos and aspire to be portrayed as sustainable but fall short in their execution. Serving substandard coffee, whether through low quality products, poorly maintained equipment or untrained staff can be an indicator that a company is more talk than walk. Today’s consumer is too savvy to be bought off by a poor imitation.

If the employer wants that authentic, artisanal coffee experience in their workplace, why not bypass the contract caterer altogether and employ the provider directly? The physical environment and equipment can still be provided by the host client to reduce the operators commercial risk and discounted tariffs can still be offered if desired.

It’s a question that each organisation must ask itself as it begins to understand why they are providing a catering offer. Creating authentic coffee experiences that mimic the high street will become more valuable to organisations and property developers seeking to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Some employers are already introducing micro-roasteries on site which create a bespoke coffee roast for a company, others have moved on from providing coffee tasting sessions to offering full blown barista training. A strong coffee experience can create a sense of comfort, a sense of place and belonging. Organisations who manage to blend ‘home’ and ‘workplace’ into their future workplace will be better positioned to attract future talent and keep them working longer.

The future workplace will be different to today’s and integrating technology will inevitably change how catering experiences are delivered. Today’s perception of what constitutes an “authentic experience” may no longer be relevant. High-quality barista coffee machines are likely to become more manageable and less reliant on hard-to-find trained baristas -meaning employees will be able to make their own coffee just as they like it. Technology already allows individuals to customise their coffee (down to the quantity of caffeine) and as individuals become more astute as to how they like their coffee, machines rather than people, may be better equipped to deliver the ‘perfect’ coffee. These solutions will alleviate the hassle of recruiting catering staff, as well reducing ongoing operational costs (a key driver for many employers).

Companies find themselves at various points on the spectrum. Some provide coffee because it’s expected, cheap and offers value to their employees. Others may go a step further and provide higher quality coffee which extends their ethos, whilst some go full out and provide barista service coffee on site. All have their merits, but they must all first understand why they are providing the service in the first place and if they can truly commit to their position. Otherwise, the value of offering coffee in the workplace can become redundant.

The true value of coffee in the workplace can only really be delivered by achieving the optimum combination of the three key components – product, personnel and environment. Get any one of these wrong and the offer could be doomed for failure as employees will seek better experiences elsewhere. Get it right, however, and the employer is onto a real winner.

Hospitality Consultant

If you need assistance with your hospitality offering either in the workplace or as part of your organisation’s services, please get in touch and we can talk you through some of the best options.