The RSA has a history with coffee. The RSA’s eighteenth century founders first met in Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, and conversations they had shaped the society around them.
The coffeehouses of eighteenth century London didn't just provide a place to meet; they were the focal point of an active community of pamphleteers, publishers and political activists. Their talk wasn't just talk – it was a means to action.
In November last year my colleague Matthew Mezey introduced me to NESTA’s idea of Randomised Coffee Trials – an initiative where staff are randomly assigned a different colleague each week with whom to 'go for a coffee'. We both thought that something like this would be interesting to to try at the RSA. Still new and enthusiastic (although scared of sending ‘all staff’ emails) I agreed to set it up, and since then about half of the organisation has taken part.
I think one of the reasons it is so needed - and therefore has potential for significant impact - at the RSA is because the physical space in which we work doesn’t afford many opportunities for serendipitous conversations.
"Randomised coffee trials are a fantastic way to create a networked structure in an organisation that doesn't allow for casual staff interaction within its building (no staff room/cafe/lunch room). I have had conversations with people that I didn't even know existed, and am now able to create a much better picture of how we might work together across teams." (Nat)
It is much more than fun. It’s starting relationships and developing friendships, all of which makes you better at the work you do.
10 weeks on, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been instructive to see something so simple working so well. It stays interesting and fresh because the connections provide something different each time:
"I was lucky enough to be assigned to Sharliza, who works in the same area as me (Communications) but in a different department. Prior to that we hadn’t even met, which just goes to show how important these initiatives are. As a result, I felt much more able to call on her for help with a new project, and got some great ideas that I otherwise would have missed." (Conor)
"I met with Thomas a few weeks ago (who I had never spoken to before) and we realised that we had both studied International Relations at Portsmouth Uni… a few years apart. I now keep an eye on a blog he writes on Conflict, Security & International Relations! RCT WIN!!!" (Mark)
The project has attracted participants from almost every team and pay grade. A director might be paired with the CEO one week and an intern the next.
Through these meetings we become more visible, more known.
Through these meetings we become more visible, more known. As a consequence, we might start to ask more of one another, but those asks are more discerning and the newly founded relationships make it easier to say no as well as yes.
"Going for coffee’ is always a pleasurable thing to do. So mixing coffee with colleagues seems like a fun idea. In practice though it is much more than fun. It’s starting relationships and developing friendships, all of which makes you better at the work you do." (Georgina)
A few friends have mentioned that they’d like to try something similar at their own organisation. NESTA have some great tips.
From my experience I would add:
- Organisational buy-in is a big help – we can build these interactions into our working day without feeling like we’re skiving.
- I’ve found it easy to run, in a not too labour-intensive way, just using an Excel spreadsheet.
- I decided to send out the matches on a Wednesday so if someone had a week’s annual leave they’d still be able to keep up with their coffees; this seems to work quite well.
- I think it was right to start with weekly meetings, so as to gain momentum and normalise it, but after feedback that it’s easy to get behind with your coffees we’re moving to fortnightly matches. 10 weeks seems like a good length of time to embed the initiative.
I’m now starting to think about how the principles behind the Randomised Coffee Trials could be used to the benefit of RSA Fellows. Could we build structured but serendipitous interaction into Fellows' experiences of the RSA and in doing so strengthen Fellowship? If you have any ideas, let me know.