(Bloomberg) -- I was in New York for in-person work meetings a few weeks ago. While there were the requisite lunches and cocktails at my favorite haunts, one thing stood out: coffee. My working assumption that coffee is an unremarkable and often undrinkable aspect of working life changed when I realized that it’s playing a central role in rebuilding corporate office culture in the new hybrid era.

For employees returning to offices on a hybrid basis, on average three days a week, having a coffee with someone is the perfect way to rebuild relationships with people they haven’t seen in possibly three years. As I wrote in this column recently, offices break the isolation and monotony of working from home and yet company leaders have to work hard at offsetting the drag of the commute, especially given the fact that the pandemic showed remote workers could be successful.

I took my anecdotal observations to the research firm Ipsos, which analyzed location data from nearly 10 million mobile phones in over 5,000 coffee shops in the New York City area for me. It showed that only 12% of visits occur during working hours, but outside lunch hours. It’s hard to argue with the appeal of free coffee in the office given surging inflation.

I saw the benefits of coffee in reviving office camaraderie first hand on a tour of the Park Avenue offices of corporate real estate consultants Savills Plc. Vice Chairman Gabe Marans showed me a plethora of newly refurbished work spaces from small, soundproofed booths to open plan cubicles and some offices complete with their own sofas and tables forming  a corner office look with privacy for senior executives. But the pride of the renovation is a vast kitchen/hangout area called “The Happy Room.”

The coffee break and its role in bringing people together socially isn’t new. In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee became a competitor to tea as the beverage of choice for both elites and workers. In his book A History of the World in 6 Glasses, the writer Tom Standage describes European coffee houses as “the internet of the Age of Reason.” Today the coffee break is widely understood as much in a work context as anything, with the “Fika” break in Sweden, “Elevenses” in the UK or even “Smoko” in Australia or the frequently seen canned coffee in Japan, normally the home of tea. Although the US is the largest coffee machine market, the fastest-growing is Asia.

What’s new today is the way the office is aiming to emulate the coffee house in-house. Coffee consumption is rising while office use has halved in cities like New York compared to before the pandemic. Global green bean exports in November 2022 totaled 9.2 million bags up 10.8% from the same month of the previous year, according to the International Coffee Organization. On the ground, media magnate Sir Martin Sorrell told me that despite reducing his office space to factor in a three-days-in norm, he agrees “totally” that redefining offices around social space has become indispensable for clients and teams alike.

That’s especially true now that many workers don’t have assigned desks. “When the time came to reopen our London office, we switched to hot-desking. A more flexible use of office space ensures you always have room to grow your team if your revenue does,” said Drew Benvie, chief executive officer of communications agency Battenhall. Expanding the social space when people are coming in at unpredictable times is a way to mitigate there being nowhere for employees to sit. Battenhall recently posted “a day in the office” on TikTok to underscore that the hot desk life is fun, though the practice remains a topic of debate. 

Now to the issue of quality. Gone are the stewed pots of tasteless water. It was notable on my recent trip that I was offered not even the pod-brewed coffee supplied by Starbucks, but the specialist, expensive expresso variety administered from top-of-the-range machines. But the one which got me most was delivered on tap:  nitro coffee  (Reader: it’s punchy).

Obviously, social life and office life have combined before, but the emphasis used to be on out-of-office bonding — happy hours and beers on Friday kind of stuff. These days, no one is in the office on a Friday if they can help it. So what happens during working hours to keep people connected matters a lot — and coffee is rising to the challenge. 

Julia Hobsbawm is a columnist for Bloomberg Work Shift and founder of The Nowhere Office. Her Nowhere Office podcast series is here. email: jhobsbawm@bloomberg.net

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