Tag: coffee

Working from Home and Phatic Communication

Working from home, being what’s called a remote worker, is a really fascinating frontier of Work. It’s fascinating both because as a paradigm, it creates new challenges, and it also makes visible ways in which more traditional work spaces overcome old challenges.

Working remotely has helped me understand traditional work places much better – if only because in stepping outside of what we see as the usual way of doing business, many of the previously invisible advantages of shared space come into stark relief.

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently is the idea of phatic conversations – that is, talk whose whole purpose is the talk itself, and not to a larger end (find something out from a colleague, accomplish a shared goal, communicate time away from work.)

I’ve written about communication with remote teams a couple other times lately:

Communicating with Remote Teams: One on Ones

Work from Home but Still Eat with Friends

This term, phatic conversation, is a new one for me, and I should say that I heard it for the first time via a podcast. It was one of those moments when someone else touches on and explains something that immediately brings your own thoughts from a mess into order. This is the thing I’ve been wandering around the outside of.

In a traditional workplace, phatic conversations happen in virtue of being around people, and they serve as a real social lubricant that is mutually beneficial and builds trust and sociability over time.

You have tons of these interactions: not all with colleagues, and not even all verbal. That neighbor that checks the mail at the same time as you? Those nods and waves are phatic communication.

We can even see things like small talk as part of this: when you engage in small talk with a stranger or with someone you’ve known for a long time, part of the purpose of that talk is the talk itself. 

It outlines a safe space. It’s a little back and forth to establish shared norms, we-are-the-same-tribe-right? 

The same is true of colleagues; when a meeting goes long due to some inane banter on an off topic, sharing a joke and a laugh on the way to lunch – this counts, there’s a real value there.

When you work next to someone, in the same building or the same floor, you sort of get phatic conversations for free.

When we think about this concept in a remote environment, where some or all of the folks working in an organization are scattered here and there geographically, this calculus changes.

Remote workers have to get our phatic conversations on purpose – we have to reach out to one another, to grab a virtual coffee or a video-conferenced lunch. It’s really interesting, right? When I was working in more traditional environments, I would have never identified small talk or waiting in line at the copy machine as ways my workplace solved a problem.

Phatic conversations are still important – they grease the wheels and create more shared experiences, and help to humanize folks you maybe don’t work with all that often. This is important!

It’s important not just socially, not just because it’s good to get to know your colleagues for your own sense of belonging and social in-grouping. It’s important because it opens up streams of communication, it gives you and your new connection access to more and different viewpoints and parts of the company (and, if you’re sufficiently distributed, different parts of the world.)

There’s value there – real, demonstrable value for the company or organization. Getting fresh eyes and fresh ears on problems is where innovation comes from. It’s by combining diverse viewpoints that we’re able to approach our problems and obstacles in new and exciting ways.

I have a few scheduled lunches every week where I sit and eat my lunch on camera with someone else (they’re not always eating, time zones means that lunch is relative!) – it’s a really nice way to spend lunch, and I’ve gotten to know folks a lot better this way.

Over the next few months, I’m going to start reaching out to folks specifically to have a coffee, and make it clear that it’s a chat to have a chat. Not people I already count as friends, but really intentionally folks I wouldn’t otherwise ever have face time with.

I don’t want to pull their developers away. I don’t want their designer to work on my project. I just want to have a coffee, to see how their day is going. It feels like this is a way to stoke the fires of serendipity a little, allowing space for unusual combinations to surface and flourish.

If you work in a remote environment, I encourage you to do this, too – it’s just coffee 🙂

BGA Webinars: The Future?

I had the great opportunity to lead a Webinar with Cuvee Coffee’s Lorenzo Perkins this last Friday evening. It was an official session of the BGA Level One classwork CP 103: Customer Service. I’ve been involved in a few web-based educational projects before, but this was the first time I’d actually lead a class in a full-online environment.

The BGA makes use of the GoToTraining software, which has many applications to different fields and types of education – for our purposes, it served us well, though if I were to make this a regular thing, I’d have to invest in a headset. Using my phone was a bit awkward and cumbersome, especially when simultaneously trying to interact with the class or utilize the UI.

Making use of online educational tools is key for the future of an organization like the BGA – at the moment, the BGA is reliant on highly skilled educators being present at industry events across the country (and sometimes globe). If the BGA Certification program is to grow and flourish as the membership grows, this system will become increasing unsustainable, requiring full-time traveling trainers, as well as straining the resources and patience of students, given the relative infrequency of classwork in their particular region.

Moving forward with the Webinar format is a feather in the BGA’s cap: while many of the class offerings are very hands-on, and would not lend themselves well to online education (any preparation classes, cupping, etc), recognizing that CP 103 is a great candidate for the Webinar format allows the BGA to reach out and engage with students who they may have otherwise lost in the spans of time between Expos and Barista Camps.

From the point of view of the educator, I really enjoyed the Webinar format: it allowed me to contribute to a community that I care about, to speak at length about a topic that is close to my heart, and I didn’t have to fly to Seattle. It was a low-cost way for me to make a meaningful impact.

The sooner we are able to move our appropriate educational formatting to the Webinar format, the sooner we will be able to handle membership growth and demand for education in a sustainable way. Introduction to Espresso will probably never be an online class – but Seed to Cup could be, as well as Efficiency & Workflow, and even Preventative Maintenance, with some creative use of videography.

Good on the BGA for choosing an educational path that will work to grow with the membership, as well as reward the educational volunteers.

You Don’t Get Any Points For The Biscuit

During the panel discussion at MANE about barista competitors and competitions, one of the panelists recalled a moment when, as a judge, he watched a competitor slip over the 15 minute mark as she struggled to perfectly place tiny sweet biscuits on the saucers of her signature beverages – “You don’t get any points for the biscuit,” he sighed.

As we find ourselves in the midst of competition season, let’s remind ourselves: you win a contest by getting the most points. There are customs that we adhere to in an almost ritualistic, superstitious way (tablecloths!), and there are items that dominate the scoresheet – those x4 multipliers that every competition prep session focuses on. To become a barista champion, you must know the rules inside and out, and know what gets you points – and what doesn’t.

This sentiment can be writ large across not just our competition structure, but also in the way that we operate our businesses. When we are able to step back from working in our business and start to work on our business, it becomes time to figure out what points to pursue. In some sense, the competitors at the regional and national barista competitions are lucky: they have a book of rules explaining how and where points can be gained. For us, in the game of coffee shop management or wholesale coffee sales, we are in the enviable position of deciding our own point structure.

While it is certainly true that revenue can be used as a scoring system, I’m assuming that you, like me, consider it only one part of a larger vision. After all, if our primary way of finding satisfaction in life were through our P&L, progressive coffee would not be the best pursuit.

If money-in alone does not define success for you and your business, what then does? It is easy to reject cashflow alone as your definition of victory, but it is much less easy to define what exactly does constitute success. This is the rub: you can only win if you define how to win, and since this pursuit is yours, it is up to you to define victory. Once you decide what your victory conditions are – pursue them.

One thing we tend to do, especially those of us who are only just coming up in the progressive coffee movement, is to confuse the newest and the coolest with the best. If my generation of coffee professionals doesn’t set down anchor and determine its true goals – even as individuals – then we’ll be forever at the mercy of the winds of fashion. If your success is defined by staying at the crest of the fashion wave, then perhaps this won’t be so concerning to you, and indeed many businesses survive doing just that. What will put deposits in your success fund? Is it taste? Is it approval? Is it increased revenue?

The first step is deciding what is important, and what is just a biscuit.

Innovating Context: Whole Bean Offerings

(This post is part of an ongoing series on the need to innovate the context in which we sell coffee. The first post is HERE)

Admittedly: I have never run a green coffee buying program, I have exactly zero Roasters Guild certifications, and I’ve never mastered the art of blending. This post, then, is more about ruminating, and hopefully, engaging a little conversation.

Roasters: I would like to suggest that many (not all!) progressive coffee roasters today are holding in their operating model two beliefs that cannot simultaneously be true, and are unnecessarily spending time and money trying to reconcile this impossible tension. These two beliefs are:

A: I have to carry coffee x ( where coffee x = dark roast, Sumatra, Hazelnut, any coffee you sell but wouldn’t drink. Many roasters have multiple examples of coffee x.) 
B: We have to help our customers learn about good coffee

On the face of it, these ideas don’t seem like they are at odds with one another, and I think many operations will readily admit that they subscribe to them both. We can pick them apart a little more, however. Presumably, roasters want to carry coffee x not because they are necessarily proud of coffee x, but because they can sell coffee x. After all, if you are carrying a coffee you aren’t proud of, and that coffee isn’t selling, you shouldn’t be reading this blog, you should be finding a new green broker. So let’s change idea A to:

A: I am carrying coffee x because my customers buy it

There’s nothing wrong with idea A – in fact, hopefully your customers buy all of your coffee – but I’d imagine there are coffees in your portfolio where sales alone are not the only factor – perhaps there is a compelling narrative, or a great direct trade relationship, or simply an astonishingly good cup. Idea A describes a coffee which you sell simply and solely because you know it will be purchased.

We can similarly break down idea B: it’s a complicated idea, after all – why do we want our customers to learn about good coffee? Well, probably because it tastes better, but also because it is a revenue source that is more meaningful – when you sell something you think is good, it feels good, rather than selling something because you think it will sell. So we can adjust idea B to something like:

B: I want my customers to buy good coffee, from me.

So our setup is now:

A: I am carrying coffee x because my customers buy it
B: I want my customers to buy good coffee, from me.

Remember: the definition of coffee x is a coffee you are not super excited about, but carry for its cash flow properties. I would suggest that the more examples of coffee x you have in your catalog, the farther away from achieving idea B you are. But I’m genuinely curious if this is a real tension that roasters experience: can you sell coffee you love and coffee you don’t love? How do you maintain a quality-centric brand while including your coffee x?

My suggestion would be to reject the Starbucks model of 18 blends and a few single origins, all of which are merely OK, and rather embrace a much smaller selection of SO’s and blends, all of which you’re excited about. I believe that this is possible and profitable when done well, even in small-market settings.

What We Can Learn From Ten Bullets

Tom Sachs is an artist living in NYC – he does some really interesting stuff, and he and I share a perhaps unhealthy obsession with outer space. ‘Ten Bullets’ is a trip through the rules that employees and visitors to his work space have to follow. Take a look:

Here’s what we in hospitality can learn from Tom and his Ten Bullets; whether or not you would ever want to work for Tom, it is totally transparent as to how you would work. His expectations are laid out clearly and without ambiguity – not just expectations but also how to make amends when expectations are not met – you pay the box!

I think as leaders, we can do a much better job setting expectations with our employees. When something goes wrong at your place of work, your first reflection should be back on your own expectations. If we do not clearly communicate what we want done and how we want it done, then we can’t reasonably be irritated when those expectations aren’t met.

Tom communicates his basic expectations in twenty minutes. I have worked places for months without anything like as clear a picture as he provides here. There is a certain duality to his phrase ‘working to code’ – while his code is a code of conduct, clearly stated and ready to be followed, many managers in hospitality really do encode their expectations: their real desires are hidden behind a complicated network of miscues and secret rules. This is bad for the manager, bad for the employee, and bad for the customer.

The Ten Bullets show you how to work, and how to make it right when you work incorrectly. Every business should have a video like this.