A better coffee machine could wreck the coffee break


Coffee maker in the Washington Post. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
John Kelly
Columnist September 4, 2012

It seemed like a good thing, the fancy new coffee machine that showed up one day a few months ago in the break room of the office of a certain federal agency here in Washington.

It was a capsule coffee machine. The very latest in coffee-making technology, it doled out perfect coffee every time, in single doses that were measured as precisely as the contents of any EpiPen or insulin-injector.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

There was no thinking involved, no risk of spillage when lifting a heaping teaspoon of ground coffee to the filter basket. Eliminated, too, was the bane of the office coffeepot: the nonchalant monitoring of coffee levels, the subtle gamesmanship necessary to avoid being stuck with making a new batch, the necessity of turning a blind nose to the acrid smell of burnt java when a thin film of coffee scorched on the burner.

This was assembly-line coffee, each foolproof serving as identical as a penny struck at the Mint.

And the most amazing part? It was tasty, with a myriad of flavors available, a rainbow of single-size foil pods, a veritable caffeinated pharmacopoeia. How could something so good be so easy?

But it was. Or rather, it is. For the capsule machine beeps away still in the break room of the office of this certain federal agency here in Washington, as its electronic brethren do in offices around the area.

In the process, we’ve lost a little something. In this particular office in this particular agency, people have realized that they no longer do something they used to do: go out together to get coffee.

That required an announcement: “I’m going for coffee. Anyone wanna come with me?” It required some decision-making: Starbucks or Caribou or some other place?

It required grabbing sunglasses if it was bright outside, an umbrella if it was raining, a coat if it was cold.

It required walking, which had the benefit of redistributing the blood that had pooled in the office’s collective butt. It required talking, about office matters sometimes but also about the weekend just passed or the weekend to come.

Who knows what intangible benefits came from an out-of-the-office coffee break?

David Ballard does. He’s a psychologist and the head of the healthy workplace program at the American Psychological Association. I called him to get his take on the state of affairs at this federal agency, recounted to me by an inside source.

“You probably saw that study that came out in the Archives of Internal Medicine,” he said.

Somehow I missed it, but David explained that researchers found that sitting for extended periods of time is linked to a higher risk of dying. For people who sit for more than eight hours a day, it’s linked to a 15 percent higher risk of kicking the bucket within the next three years. For those who sit 11 hours a day, the risk increases by 40 percent. Even if you exercise regularly outside the office, the risk is still greater if you stay seated eight hours a day.

Going out for coffee, David said, is a way to get beneficial physical activity — “as long as you’re not going out every hour for a double mocha frappuccino with whipped cream.”

Then there are the psychological benefits of a communal coffee road trip.

“A lot of organizations build in artificial team building,” David said. “Many employees find these awkward and distasteful. It’s better to build in time for informal interaction. That contributes to cohesiveness. Sometimes having a change of scenery can spur creativity, clear your head.”

David’s office is near Union Station. His team has talked about doing its department meetings down on the Mall, “to get out of the office so we’re not just sitting in a gray conference room.”

Those Keurigs and Mieles and Illys, those Nespressos and DeLonghis and Flavias, sure are convenient. Some bosses might even see them as perfect workplace tools, a way to keep employees close to their cubicles. Resist the conspiracy! Get up from your desk! Get some fresh air!

You’ll be doing your body and your mind a favor. And that, in turn, can only be good for your employer.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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