Periodically, small offices, departments or groups of employes are moved to make their own coffee rather than to patronize the nearest coin machine, cafeteria or take-out place.
The appeal of this is obvious: better coffee for less money. And the basic concept of how to do it is beguilingly simple: sharing the cost and sharing the work.
Unfortunately, three main problems always arise: sharing the cost, sharing the work and sharing the decisions involved. Attempting a coffee-making cooperative is like trying to have a successful marriage with eight or 10 participants instead of two.
Even the first step--choosing and paying for the necessary coffeemaker--is a source of friction. It's almost a sure bet that someone will grouse forever after about the choice that's made.
So much for the easy part. Paying for the coffee, sugar, sugar substitute and real cream or fake cream is worse. An occasional flat assessment for expenses is always trouble.
"George drinks twice as much as I do!" "Nancy gives coffee to visitors all the time!" "Why should I pay for cream when I drink my coffee black?" "I can't believe we need more money already. I think Jerry's making a profit on this!" These are the kind of comments that percolate merrily through the group.
If the group members take turns purchasing supplies with their own money, at least no one gets stuck with the suspect position and unwelcome chore of treasurer/buyer.
But the biggest problem remains: an equal or near equal charge for notably unequal consumption.
The obvious answer is to charge by the cup. Then the chorus changes.
"Bill doesn't pay for his coffee half the time." "Why do you think she never gets coffee if somebody else is in the room?" "If John didn't have change, why didn't he write out an I.O.U.?" This sort of muttering is actually worse than the occasional shout: "Somebody swiped the money!"
And I have yet to touch on the cacophony of sharing work. If people are supposed to take turns making the coffee and cleaning up--by the day, by the week or whatever--discord abounds.
"I don't care if she's sick--it's not my turn." "Do it yourself or just wait. I've got to go to a meeting." "Sally still owes me three days."
I worked in one office that coped with the work-sharing problems by having no assignments. Instead there was a ludicrous waiting game every morning to see who would break down and clean the coffeemaker and make the first batch of coffee. Some people would check on the coffee status every few minutes without ever deigning to make it themselves.
The same waiting game extended to later batches--with one wrinkle. Whoever took the last cup of coffee was supposed to make more. This added the possibility of cheating and accusations thereof.
Silly as this system may sound, it was the most peaceable one I have seen.
I confess I began this column simply as observations on an activity that seems curiously doomed--to abandonment at best and continued friction otherwise.
But then I couldn't help wondering why such a minor endeavor should prove so difficult . . . and "coffee-making cooperative," such a misnomer . . . when we cooperate so well on so many projects in an office, in spite of conflicting priorities and demands on our time.
My conclusion surprised me. I think the difficulty stems more from our passion for justice than from pettiness.