I’ll have my coffee virtually, thank you.

By Nick Petschek

At LRN, we’re continually refining the theory and practice of the human operating system. One of our solutions for organizations interested in cultural change are our diagnostics tools (which we use on ourselves as well). We don’t, however, just stop at diagnosis. We help organizations understand and improve their cultural deficiencies for increased business performance, employee inspiration, and well-being.

Enough organizations struggle with collaboration and information sharing that I want to highlight one of the many tools we often suggest — virtual coffees.

Virtual coffee is a 10–15 minute conversation set up between two randomly selected employees. Each month, the 30% of us at LRN who have opted in to this network builder receive an email linking us to another colleague. The email playfully instructs the two of us to find a few minutes to have a video conference over the next two weeks, and provides a general framework: five minutes for mutual introductions, and three conversation prompts for the remaining time. It’s that simple.

It’s simple, yet simultaneously deepens the tone and culture of an organization from the top, middle, and grassroots. We all participate: our CEO, President, quality assurance, graphic designers, etc. On any given week, our CEO can be matched with any of the participating LRN employees around the world for a 15 minute conversation.

We believe our virtual coffees help us in three ways.

We improve our business through increased information sharing. Social network theorist Mark Granovetter explored the difference between strong ties (in a work context, these are the people you’d go to lunch with, people you sit next to, commute with, etc.) and weak ties (“that woman from IT” or “that guy from Legal”). He found that weak ties actually provide us more access to different information and opportunities than our strong ties — we think of these as information ties. So the question becomes, if we want information to be shared within our organization, how do we enhance information ties?

Through collaboration technologies (phones, email, Slack, etc.) we have the tactical “how” of sharing information, but their existence alone does not create conversations or relationships. This is particularly pertinent to LRN, as we have an international footprint with colleagues across the globe. Stephen in New York, Amit in Mumbai, and Mike in London are unlikely to know how the others can help them, unless they had already learned what the others did, or had by chance formed an information tie with someone on their team. Virtual coffees is the framework that intentionally uses our collaboration channels to rapidly grow the network of information ties by providing the “why” and “when”.

We build trust and empathy. Two of the three conversation prompts are derived from recent sociological experiments on generating interpersonal closeness — you’ve probably heard of the layman title: 36 questions that lead to love. These prompts offer (but do not require) coffee drinkers to share personal views and thoughts about what is important to them as individuals. These conversations deepen trust between colleagues who are often physically distant and in different roles in the company, and foster empathy for the other’s point of view, which is necessary to make good decisions as we work together.

We enhance our collective understanding of our mission, and create a common language. The third conversation prompt focuses on our mission and leadership framework, which is our internal behavioral model. For example, a prompt may ask the two colleagues to share the last time they saw humility (one of our core values) in action, or to discuss how a current event could be viewed through our leadership framework. These micro-conversations increase an understanding of our mission, and deepen the sense of belonging and commitment as colleagues put the framework into their own words.

Participation is steadily increasing. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and with the help of internal participants we’ve refined the initiative. Our initial cadence (originally weekly or biweekly) was too quick, and at participants’ request virtual coffees is now monthly. New colleagues are automatically signed up to try the program, and then like any other participant, can opt in or out at any time. We’ve had a steady climb of opt-in participants every month, in part related to the expanding information ties throughout the organization. Through feedback mechanisms within the initiative, we’ve also uncovered ideas for other initiatives, such as an expanded connection between two specific offices. These parameters are specific to LRN, in other organizations weekly or bi-monthly coffees may be more appropriate.

Virtual coffees improves human connections across organizations spread out by geography and time zones, deepens the collective definition of values and behavioral models, and creates deeper networks to support information sharing, and help the business succeed.

The future of work is about enabling information ties within your organization. So, cream and sugar, or black?