How 2,000 Random Coffee Dates Transformed My Company's Culture

Originally published by Ryan Holmes on LinkedIn: How 2,000 Random Coffee Dates Transformed My Company's Culture

Is it possible that a few bucks spent on a cup of coffee could change the culture of a whole company?

Well, maybe.

For the past year, my company has been trying something we call #randomcoffee. Employees from different departments are matched up—blind-date style—to get to know one another over a cup of coffee (or beverage of choice). So far, more than 1,000 people have signed up, and 2,000 new introductions have been made over coffee.

Why does this matter? Anyone who’s worked in a big company knows that, despite best efforts, invisible walls end up going up between teams and departments. Sales and marketing might as well be on different planets sometimes, for example. You work closely with a small group of coworkers and most everybody else is, well, just a face you pass in the hallway.

All of which, of course, is terrible … on so many levels. Coordination breaks down. Information gaps develop. Customers get a disjointed experience. Culture suffers. Not to mention, you miss the chance to meet some really interesting people.

When we were a startup, this wasn’t an issue: We all worked in the same room. But in a short span, we grew to nearly 1,000 employees in almost a dozen offices around the world. Luckily, a group of our early employees saw a threat to our culture … and opted to do something. Taking a cue from programs like Ten Thousand Coffees, Mixer and Innovate Brew, they decided to see if coffee could succeed in bringing Hootsuite’s employees together.

Designing a #randomcoffee program

#randomcoffee started out, as most initiatives do, with a Google spreadsheet and a bunch of emails. Eventually, 128 people signed up for their first coffee encounter with a random colleague. We wrote a quick-and-dirty algorithm to ensure each pairing brought together people from a different department, then blasted out emails to the lucky duos. (Check out this post by Noel Pullen for all the nitty gritty details.)

And … it worked. As the first wave of meetings unfolded, people started sharing selfies on Facebook and stories around the office. Participants gained new insight into the workings of other departments. People realized they faced common issues and brought new perspectives to problems. Ideas for future collaborations and projects took root. It was assisted serendipity in action.

On a personal level, for example, I met up with a training consultant who had just joined the company. When I mentioned I was thinking about starting my own weekly newsletter to stay in touch with employees, she did me one better. Her former boss at Apple, she explained, had sent out weekly video updates, with great engagement. I was hooked and have been doing videos ever since.

Most importantly, though, it was fun. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone asked when the next #randomcoffee would be.

Adding some tech magic (and a cool website)

Being a software company (Hootsuite is a social media management platform), we decided to take things to the next level. During one of our hackathons—company-wide programming marathons, where we explore new ideas and passion projects—one team poured its energy into developing a working #randomcoffee website. The goal was to automate the process of matching coffee partners, making it as easy as signing up for a newsletter.

Just as important, we wanted to find a way to roll this out to other companies so they could experience the team-building power of a little caffeine. We built a basic tool, and in the intervening months evolved it out with more features.

Eventually, this evolved—thanks to a real labor of love by our senior director of software development, Ken Britton—into a site where people from any company can pair up with one of their own co-workers for a cup of joe.

The process is pretty straightforward. Once a company is registered, employees sign up on the site using their company email address. They then get an invitation email that asks for pertinent info: name, department, location, even an “icebreaker URL” (like a link to a LinkedIn profile or personal website). Once a month (or at a desired frequency), the algorithm matches up pairs and alerts them via email, in a message with some basic tips and instructions. Then, it’s up to the recipients to follow through and set a date and time to meet with their partners. Ideally, all of this ends with a selfie and a quick post on social media to share with colleagues.

So far, hundreds of different companies have tried it out, including multinationals from around the world. For businesses with a global workforce, it’s even possible to pair team members in the same department but in different locations for a virtual coffee. You can also indicate whether the company is footing the bill or if you’re just playing matchmaker.

The level of enthusiasm has been eye-opening. What I’ve learned is that employees genuinely want to get to know their colleagues better, and it turns out a simple cup of coffee (helped along by a little technology) can provide the opening. It’s the kind of growth and culture hack that costs almost nothing and pays immediate returns—in terms not just of cross-departmental cooperation but overall morale.

We’re already looking for ways to make the experience better. Possibilities include developing a calendar-matching feature and adding in options for #randomcocktails or #randomlunches (with four or more people).

All of this might sound frivolous, but I’d argue that it’s exactly the opposite. Social technologies have transformed our personal lives in the last decade, enabling a kind of intimacy and collaboration hard to imagine before. Ever so slowly, that same spirit—applying technology to bring people closer in real life—is finding its way inside company walls. Ultimately, human connection is what distinguishes great companies from ordinary ones. #randomcoffee is one small way to build those bonds, with help from a little tech and a little caffeine.

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