Ask Alto: Coffee meetings – what are they, and should we stop them?

March 09, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

The isolation imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic was hard for many people. For the Economist’s Bartleby columnist, however, there must have been one redeeming feature: a lack of coffee meetings. Describing the many ways in which a coffee meeting can waste time and energy, Bartleby says:” Your coffee is drained and the 30 minutes have passed. You say you have to go. While you wait – and wait – to pay, you share a bit more useless information… You can almost feel your neurons deciding that there are no memories here that are worth forming. You both agree that it has been really good to meet, even though it hasn’t, and that you will be in touch, even though you won’t.”

Despite Bartleby’s reservations, the discussion of ideas over a cup of coffee has a long history. History Channel traces the evolution of coffee with a side order of talking to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. The first coffee house in London opened in 1652, prompting a social revolution. English coffee houses of the time had communal tables covered with newspapers and pamphlets where guests would gather to consume, discuss and even write the news.

Somehow, though, the 21st century version of that vibrant discussion of ideas is a little less exciting.

What is a modern coffee meeting then?

Coffee company Driftway is, unsurprisingly, in favour of coffee meetings, which it says are popular among entrepreneurs and professionals who use them as an informal way to network with other people and discuss specific ideas. “They require little investment of time and money, and they… work for people who don’t have a traditional office.”

That last phrase is key: coffee meetings are seen as a way to meet people free of the constraints of office culture. They are also thought of a tactic to meet someone who may be able to help smooth one’s professional path, or as a way to get career advice, or as a way to tap into someone else’s network. Do a Google search on “coffee meetings” and results like this will appear:

  • The Dos and Don’ts of Getting Coffee Meetings
  • Tips for Planning a Coffee Meeting (With Benefits)
  • Meet for a Coffee: How To Build a Professional Network

Coffee meetings are such an established part of the corporate world that a virtual get-together which involves no beverages at all is also called a coffee meeting. Student job resource website Prepped bills a virtual coffee chat as an effective way to make networking “more personal”.

But it’s a moot point as to whether these awkward, transactional meetings are effective. There is no guarantee that either party will be on time, or that anyone will get anything productive out of the encounter. Not to mention the excruciating moment of trying to negotiate who is actually going to pay for the coffee.

What to do instead of a coffee meeting

All that said, the need which coffee meetings are supposed to fill is not going to go away – people who don’t know each other well still need to meet and network and share ideas. Here are some thoughts on what do to instead of a coffee meeting:

  • Bartleby recommends that people should forego the caffeine and “schedule a call during a period of dead time such as a commute. The time may be used fruitfully; if it is not, it will not feel as wasted.”
  • Ryan Blair, CEO and cofounder of healthy lifestyle company ViSalus, takes his coffee meeting prospects out on a hike. That might be going too far – but could the networking happen on a lunchtime walk in a nearby park? At least you’ll both be getting some exercise.
  • If you work from home and need a coffee meeting so that your prospective client doesn’t have to see the laundry piled on your desk, why not hire a meeting room or conference space? There’ll be decent WiFi if nothing else.

And if you must have a coffee meeting, do these things:

As with everything in life, planning is key. Whether you are inviting someone to a coffee meeting, or agreeing to attend one, think about these things:

  • Pick the coffee shop carefully – think about noise and light levels, and make sure there are comfortable chairs and decent size tables. And check they have reliable WiFi.
  • Do your homework – everyone’s time is valuable. Don’t waste time in the meeting asking questions that you could have answered with a Google search or by skimming the person’s LinkedIn profile.
  • Clarify who is going to pay before the meeting – if you are doing the inviting, say “can I invite you for a coffee”. If you are accepting, say “the coffee will be on me”.
  • Clarify what you will discuss beforehand - if you’re requesting the meeting, say: “Would you be up for getting a coffee? I’d like to discuss [a specific topic].” If someone asks for the coffee meeting, reply “I’d love to meet with you. I’ve wanted to discuss [a specific topic].”
  • Treat it like a meeting - all good meetings have a basic structure, and coffee meetings are no exception. Set an agenda, discuss the points at hand, note the takeaways.
  • Remember you don’t have to drink coffee – but whatever you order, make sure it will take the same time to arrive and be consumed as whatever the other party has ordered. If they have ordered a readymade muffin, don’t order the house speciality pizza that’s going to take half an hour to get to the table.