Where have all the donuts gone?

Marissa Mayer’s recent call for Yahoo! employees to return to the office sparked a discussion with a colleague.

In the early 80’s (!), when I worked for HP, there were twice-daily breaks with coffee, tea, and food. Donuts in the morning, cookies in the afternoon. Five days a week. (Along with the FridDonuts and Coffeeay beer busts.) This tradition had been in place for years. Disparate groups congregated around the food and yakked – about fishing, music, movies, family – and about work, including research & development challenges, manufacturing issues, and the like. Around the coffee and donuts, problems were illuminated, elevated, and solved.

Sometime during the mid-80’s, the powers-that-be decided that the cost of the donuts and cookies wasn’t appropriate. Or, perhaps, the discussion of fishing and family put them off. So the snacks were removed. And the crowd around the break table diminished.

Later, the coffee and tea were banished to “break rooms.”

As I remarked to my colleague, “Did HP save a million dollars in donuts, or lose a billion dollars in idea exchange that never happened?” (Look at the company today…)

Mayer’s move to get people back to the office might not be the only one needed; or even exactly the right choice. (Many nuances and open questions, including the revelation that examination of employee VPN logs might have been the motivator.) But learning and problem-solving occurs when people say “could you come look at this and tell me what you think?” And that doesn’t often happen in the virtual world, despite IM, Skype, and what-have-you.

Sadly, without the right catalyst, it might not even happen in the office.

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