Most managers know their employees will be more successful, both individually and collectively, if they share a sense of community, which build team cohesion and a sense of belonging, aka employee loyalty.

Most corporations have some variety of community-building exercises, either formal ("We're doing a ropes course at the next annual meeting") or informal ("TGIF at the corner pub! Be there or be square!") Formal exercises, however, often seem forced and awkward while informal ones isolate employees who don't enjoy the activities involved.

Fortunately, there's a simple and relatively inexpensive way to create a sense of community that will increase team cohesion and employee loyalty: create break area that resembles a coffee shop.  According to Lisa Kinch Waxman, chair of the Interior Design department at Florida State University, coffee shops

"...have a unique social climate and culture related to sense of belonging, territoriality and ownership, productivity and personal growth, opportunity for socialization, support and networking, and sense of community... Survey findings from coffee shops patrons showed a positive correlation between length of patronage and their sense of attachment to their community."

All offices have areas where people gather and talk, like cafeterias, break rooms, coffee stations, and watercoolers. Coffee shops, however, have a different "vibe" because they invite people to sit, drink a beverage (coffee, tea or other), and talk. A cafeteria, by contrast, is where you eat quickly and get back to work. Ditto with break rooms, etc.

According to Waxman's research, coffee shops that build community have five characteristics: 1) cleanliness, 2) appealing aroma, 3) adequate lighting, 4) comfortable furniture, and 5) an outside view. With that in mind, here's how to create a coffee shop inside your typical open plan office environment.

First, section off a part of your office that has an outside view, preferably with floor to ceiling walls or at least very high partitions. This is important, because if you try to build the coffee shop as part of your general "open office," it will just add to the noise pollution and visual pollution and will fail to become a "place" in and of itself.

Second, rather than cafeteria seating or conference room seating, have comfortable chairs and low tables. Decrease the intensity of the interior lighting so that the area "feels different" from the areas of the office where people get work done.  Decorate the room so that it has some personality that doesn't feel "corporate."

Finally, and most importantly, consider making the coffee shop an "electronics free" zone. No laptops, no phones. If you fail to do this, your high status employees will simply relocate their work areas to the coffee shop, thereby turning it into another status symbol, which is the opposite of community-building. The idea is to create more conversations, not better digs for top dogs.

While Waxman's research didn't cover this, coffee (and caffienated beverages generally) are excellent at spurring conversations and lightening emotions. That may be why an "appealing aroma" seems to automatically create a sense of place in a coffee shop; it's triggering the good feelings that people associate with drinking coffee.

Of course, if you're really committed to the idea and have the money, you can go all out and create a fancy coffee bar, with baristas and everything. Certainly many companies have done that. But in many cases, implementing a coffee shop would simply entail shifting the floorplan, moving the coffee machine, and renting some furniture.

Published on: May 1, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.