Features

Breaking Down Silos with Coffee Chats

By Jenny Jones • May 15, 2019

Many organizations face internal communication struggles. In fact, Deloitte Global’s 2019 Industry 4.0 Readiness Report shows that one-third of the 2,000 C-suite executives surveyed ranked organizational or geographical silos among their top three challenges. Employees often don’t know what roles others play in the organization, what projects others are working on, and whether they can or should share their work with colleagues outside of their departments or immediate teams. As a result, employees tend to operate in insulated environments — and these silos can have a significant impact on an organization’s culture, as well as its bottom line.

At the American College of Radiology (ACR), a nonprofit association headquartered in Reston, Va., that empowers members to advance radiological care, we have instituted a simple initiative that is helping to break down silos among the organization’s nearly 500 employees who work across more than 20 departments and four geographic locations, as well as remotely. Known as ACR Coffee Chats, this engagement initiative randomly pairs employees throughout the organization — from the C-suite to building operations — to meet in-person or virtually to talk about their work and interests over a free Starbucks coffee or other beverage.

The ACR started Coffee Chats as a pilot project in 2016, with nearly a quarter of the workforce participating. Following their chats, surveyed participants provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about the experience, saying things like: “It’s a great opportunity to get to know co-workers who you wouldn’t come across in other settings, learning about other departments and sharing knowledge,” and “I love that we are doing this! Thanks for the opportunity.” Based on this affirmative response, ACR Coffee Chats has become an ongoing initiative that employees have praised both in the organization’s internal Culture of Excellence Survey and in an independent survey that earned the ACR a Great Place to Work® certification.

Staff-Driven Effort

A four-member team from the ACR’s publications department, including ACR Press vice president Becky Haines, conceived the idea for ACR Coffee Chats while participating in the 2016 edition of the School for Change Agents (known at the time as the School for Health and Care Radicals). The School for Change Agents is an online course sponsored by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service that builds change agency among members of the healthcare sector to make a difference in patient care and beyond. The five-week course is broadcast live and attracts students from around the globe.

During the 2016 session, School for Change Agents leaders encouraged students to launch a change initiative at their organizations and share results data at the course’s end. As the ACR team considered initiatives it could implement in the relatively short timeframe, it drew inspiration from the School for Change Agent’s Randomized Coffee Trials, which paired students to have coffee and talk with one another through video conferencing. After conducting online research, the ACR team discovered that other organizations had instituted Randomized Coffee Trials with favorable results and determined that it could easily adopt the model to ignite engagement and collaboration within the ACR.

With Haines’ sponsorship, the team drafted a proposal and took it to the ACR’s Innovation Lab, an idea incubator that the Office of Strategic Planning and Business Excellence (OSPBE) team was running to gather staff ideas for improving all aspects of the ACR. When Haines and her team presented the Coffee Chats concept, the OSPBE group immediately recognized its potential and agreed to help flesh out and implement the pilot. Here’s the approach they developed:

  • Employees sign up online for the voluntary initiative
  • To encourage participation, each employee receives a $5 Starbucks gift card
  • Employees are randomly paired for unbiased groupings
  • Paired groups get an hour on the clock to go to the nearby Starbucks for their chats
  • To ensure inclusivity, remote employees and remote pairs can use video conferencing
  • Pairs schedule their chats on their own to accommodate their schedules
  • A provided set of icebreaker questions can help get the chats started
  • Participants are asked to fill out a post-chat survey to gauge success

Permanent Initiative

The team launched the ACR Coffee Chats pilot in September 2016. The ACR’s chief executive officer lent the program credibility by sending an email inviting all staff to participate in the program. Nearly 120 employees, including personnel from each of the ACR’s four offices and remote workers, signed up for the pilot. Participants were given three weeks to pick up their gift cards from the executive office suite, schedule and hold their Coffee Chats, and respond to the follow-up survey. (Employees at the ACR’s satellite offices and remote workers received their gift cards in the mail.)

ACR employees like Christina Berry, economic policy analyst, and Sujith Nair, application development manager, enjoy learning more about each other’s work as part of ACR Coffee Chats.
ACR employees like Christina Berry, economic policy analyst, and Sujith Nair, application development manager, enjoy learning more about each other’s work as part of ACR Coffee Chats.

Almost everyone who participated in the program responded to the online survey. In addition to expressions of appreciation for the opportunity to participate in the program, some employees noted that they learned new things about the organization as a result of their chats. For instance, one participant who worked at a satellite office reported learning that the ACR headquarters office served more than an administrative function. Other participants reported that they now had friends in other departments who they could reach out to with questions and for collaboration.

Dominick Parris, senior economic policy analyst, and Alexa Nuckles, senior business analyst, were two of more than 100 ACR employees who participated in the spring 2017 edition of ACR Coffee Chats.
Dominick Parris, senior economic policy analyst, and Alexa Nuckles, senior business analyst, were two of more than 100 ACR employees who participated in the spring 2017 edition of ACR Coffee Chats.

With support from Haines and the OSPBE, the Coffee Chats team presented this feedback during a meeting with the ACR’s chief executive officer and executive vice presidents. As the team outlined how the program worked and the staff response it generated, executives noted the high value of the low-cost initiative to bring people across the organization together. And they agreed to adopt ACR Coffee Chats as a permanent program that is run out of the Human Resources Department.

Since then, the ACR has held four additional Coffee Chats, with each round consistently drawing more than 100 participants. Employees who take part in the chats routinely comment that they made lasting connections, learned new information, and feel more engrossed in their work as a result of the program. ACR Coffee Chats have become a central part of the organization’s employee engagement portfolio — breaking down silos one cup of coffee at a time.

About The Author

Jenny Jones is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Imaging 3.0, an initiative of the American College of Radiology. You can reach her at jjones@acr.org or @Jenny_Writer.