Coffee-badging is the newest workplace term emerging with the return to offices. It’s where workers stop by briefly on the days they’re requested back, show face and make some conversation, then quietly return home to finish their work. Nearly 60% of workers are doing it, according to a report from Owl Labs which surveyed over 2,000 full-time U.S. based workers in June.
The behavior is potentially harmful to employers’ goals with RTO plans, but also a symptom of those plans already not working as well as intended. As employers continue grappling with exactly what workplace activities need to happen in person, they shouldn’t look down on the behavior but look inwards, experts say.
“If more than half of hybrid employees say they are “coffee badging,” it shows that companies need to be more flexible on how they define work and measure success and performance,” said Owl Labs CEO Frank Weishaupt.
Measuring performance has been an ongoing challenge throughout the pandemic and through shifting working arrangements. Early in the pandemic employers attempted to better monitor remote workers by using tools like keystroke technology with a goal of illuminating blind spots. Though those tools tend to incentivize counterproductive work behaviors by focusing on idle time and activities rather than outcomes, said Caitlin Duffy, HR research director at Gartner.
Similarly, relying on an in-office presence fails to accurately capture actual work performance and outcomes, she said. And those requiring employees to return to in-person work are now turning to presenteeism as a metric, whether they recognize it or not.
“If nothing changes about the real value and utility of the office, then monitoring their presence alone is not going to motivate them to spend time working there, it’s just going to incentivize them working toward the metric,” said Caitlin Duffy, HR research director at Gartner.
“Metrics like that don’t tell us anything meaningful,” Duffy said.
Both companies and managers are struggling to define what exactly the office is for, and certainly struggling to justify that to staff. A recent Microsoft report highlighted three key workplace situations where it matters to be in-person: when strengthening team cohesion, when kicking off a project and during onboarding.
The Owl Labs report found hybrid workers think the best reason to work in-person is to meet new people. About 30% said it’s best for team meetings, and about the same said it’s good for collaborating.
Informal mentoring is another reason to work in-person, said Cameron Yarbrough, cofounder and CEO of people development platform Torch.
But ultimately, “permanent presence to ‘prove’ you’re working is an outmoded notion that is losing relevance,” Yarbrough said.
“We need better ways of managing that take into account how modern technology has transformed the way knowledge is shared, how people now want to work together and how their performance is best measured and managed,” he said.
Many of the problems with RTO plans are falling on middle managers currently, as they work to pacify both sides: company leadership issuing mandates, and defiant staff members. Some experts say it’s actually another responsibility for middle managers to define and justify exactly when and why their team members will work together in person.
“Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping the work environment and setting expectations.
But ultimately “it is the leader’s responsibility to create a culture of accountability, provide clear guidelines, and establish effective communication channels,” he said. “Sadly it is easier to blame workers for things like wanting to work where suits them than it is to put these leaders and structures in place,” he added.