Time to bring back the tea ladies

One of the first times I was involved in organisational change involved retrenching a third of the staff in a mining company.  One of the sad parts was to retrench all the tea ladies who had been part of the company for decades.

The tea ladies are long gone and the concept would seem alien to most people in our modern offices.  But I have been in several conversations that cause me to question whether it is actually time to once again look at the value of in-sourcing tea services.

After we got rid of the tea ladies, organisations generally brought in cheap and predictable coffee machines.  This sped things up because people only had a coffee when they wanted a break, and the quality of the coffee was consistent and predictable.  It was so long ago we used TQM as a methodology, but the gains would have made most six sigma aficionados proud.

But the quality of our coffee was not so good.  And management theory moved on to outsourcing and empowerment of staff to make decisions at the front line.  So staff turned to outsourced coffee specialists (cafes).  This allowed the cafes to focus on their core competency (beverages) while the company moved on with widget production.  IT also allowed modern agile manufacturing processes such as mass customisation for cappuccino combinations most internal tea ladies would never have imagined.

But I believe we are now paying a price for this, and the current financial crisis may be just one of the symptoms. 

I have been in conversations with people in a number of organisations in the last couple of weeks and have discovered a consistent theme – almost every building now has a cafe or two nearby and most meetings are now being held in cafes.

But is this really optimal? 

  • I heard several cases of highly confidential information being leaked through waitresses and barristas. 
  • I heard of increasing dissatisfaction with lifts and elevators as service standards crumble under the demands of consistent staff movements to and from the cafes – traffic flows never anticipated in the original elevator infrastructure of the buildings; and
  • I heard of lonely managers calling meetings in empty meeting rooms.  When they address this through assigning one of the team to get coffees, the meeting loses 15 minutes in interpreting differing beverage needs and inexperienced team members are dispatched to pick up beverage selections they neither understand nor are equipped to describe to the barristas in the cafes.

Add to this the failing attempts of companies to install and maintain useful automated frappicino machines and you get a feel for the crisis.

But beyond this, companies are installing social networks and new organisational structures to try and imitate the “conversations by the coffee machine” and bring a consistent message and culture through the organisation.

Aren’t all these things a skilled tea lady used to do?  Granted in the modern world we have male and female tea providers and granted they need a far more sophisticated education in barrista-science.  But isn’t the idea still sane?

Imagine these benefits:

  • One to two people travelling the elevators with coffee orders instead of hundreds.  The economic benefits, building design improvements and ecological impact of less elevator traffic must make this sound worth investigating.
  • Improved quality of orders for beverages in every meeting, with the team focussed on its job and not trying to interpret and manage each others obscure preferences
  • Meetings taking place in kitchens or near desks with the beverage equipment coming to the meeting, rather than the participants travelling to the beverages, nor leaking company secrets in open spaces. 

But these are only the tip of the iceberg. 

Indeed office spaces can be improved to form casual meetings at set times for people across organisational boundaries.  Meetings can be called at short notice and coffee can be prepared while the meeting begins.

Even beyond this though – the old tea ladies used to gossip.  But imagine the powere of skilled change managers carrying important company messages, visions and value from floor to floor as they inculcate these ideas into informal conversations throughout employee workspaces.

And just as importantly, imagine the informal networking information that can travel between employees, and the information that can be gathered so easilly on such “soft” areas as motivation, culture, or the changing needs of gen Z.0.

Companies spend large amounts of money on culturalchange while employees spend equally large amounts on coffee.  Why not salary package the beverage budgets and gain all the efficiency gains and cultural influencers without spending a cent?

In the changing world, is it not time to bring into our workplaces skilled barristas and tea somiliers, with information management and cultural transformation skills?

I say it is time to revisit this old idea – Its time to throw away our constraining stereotype of the tea lady and introduce the internal mobile barristas.


About James King

I coach organisations in how to better make use of the untapped talent they have in their people and to explore new ways of understanding and solving new and old problems I live in Sydney with my wife and daughter and have no real hobbies beyond the usual boring ones of reading, writing and watching tv.
This entry was posted in Organisational change, random waffle. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Time to bring back the tea ladies

  1. ryan2point0 says:

    I agree, James – Bring back the tea ladies! While I use a daily coffee break to gather my thoughts and rest my eyes (http://ryan2point0.wordpress.com/2008/09/18/eye-health/), it’s certainly an individualistic pastime. If a tea lady were to arrive at the office every day at, say, 10:00am, it would attract a whole bunch of colleagues together and keep the social/professional networking alive. Besides, there’s just something “nice” about it.

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