Coffee-badging is just the start of the pushback on silly rules

Coffee-badging is just the start of the pushback on silly rules

It seems not a week goes by without another fun moniker given to employees rallying against poor workplace practices. And the latest is no exception. Coffee-badging is the term being used to describe employees who sign-in, or ‘badge’ into the physical office, in order to make their presence known, but then leave soon afterwards to work from home. Some people even go to the lengths of making a coffee, walking around the office, and then abruptly leaving as soon as it’s possible. Hence the obvious name, coffee-badging. 

The common factor amongst coffee badgers, is that their place of work is mandating in-office work days. Essentially, forcing people to spend a set amount of time, or specific days within the office.

I’ve written about the poor effect of mandating in-office days in a previous post, so I don’t want to cover old ground about why mandating in the first place is ineffective. I feel like my point has now been further made thanks to the coffee-badgers. Because if you make silly rules, you’ll get silly behaviour. 

What I want to share in this feature is a few things. I want to share the root cause of coffee-badging, the uprising of other behaviours, a sprinkling of human psychology, and the dark path it could all lead to if we’re not careful. 

The cause of coffee-badging

The whole purpose of coffee-badging is to be seen to be working in the office. 

As return to office mandates start to creep up, people are being forced to be in the office for a set amount of days or times. Never mind whether it’s a productive use of time, or actually conducive to helping people create their best work. The message is this: be in the office – that’s it.

And so of course people are rebelling against this purposeless rule, because it doesn’t make any common sense, companies are simply treating people like children. In fact, there’s quite a lot of resemblance between in-office mandates and the new push from the UK government for children’s school attendance. Both policies are weak and full of flaws, especially when the data so vehemently gives evidence that greater autonomy and flexibility, creates greater results. 

Coffee-badging is a quiet rebellion against work policies that don’t accommodate how people want and need to work. It’s a clear sign that companies are not listening to people, and not taking the steps necessary to create a culture that supports true engagement. 

Even the need for visibility says it all. Companies are still stuck on measuring presence rather than output. Taking in-person attendance as a sign of productivity, when we all know that it is no measure of results. 

Instead, policies such as this create a backlash, making people go from mildly disinterested to outright acts of defiance. 

The pushback is human behaviour

To understand the coffee-badging behaviour, we have to look through the lens of human psychology, and how when our sense of freedom and autonomy is restricted, our behaviour pushes against the imposed rules. 

One of the foundational theories that address this topic is Self-Determination Theory (SDT), proposed by Deci and Ryan. SDT suggests that autonomy is one of the three basic psychological needs. According to SDT, when individuals’ sense of autonomy is supported, they are more likely to show enhanced self-motivation, higher quality engagement, and well-being. Conversely, when autonomy is restricted, individuals might experience diminished motivation, well-being, and increased psychological distress.

When people feel they are being controlled or that their choices are limited, they may show less interest and engagement in the activity at hand. This is often observed in educational settings, where overly prescriptive or controlling teaching methods can dampen students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. 

Autonomy restriction can lead to feelings of pressure and stress, negatively impacting individuals’ mental health. Studies have shown that environments that restrict autonomy contribute to higher levels of anxiety and depression. 

And in some cases, like the coffee-badging we are currently seeing;  individuals may respond to perceived threats to their autonomy through resistance or rebellious behaviours, a phenomenon known as “psychological reactance”. This is particularly evident among teenagers and young adults who might act out against overly strict parents.

As detailed, the restriction of autonomy only leads down a dark path. The tougher the rules and restrictions get, the more people fight back and find ways to navigate around them. Energy is spent breaking rules, rather than on the work at hand. 

The evidence is in black and white, that across various domains, including education, workplace, and health; autonomy is crucial for fostering positive change because it is a fundamental part of our human needs.

What these companies should try instead

I don’t think most companies want to create a prison-like environment in the workplace. It’s just they don’t know any other way. Their rules and restrictions come from a place of fear and uncertainty. There are targets to hit, customers to keep happy, and board members to please. The known way is the old way, which is why so many keep defaulting back to rigid rules and autocratic management – that’s all they know, and choosing anything else feels like a great risk. 

However, if there are companies bold enough to try something new, this would be my guidance.

Don’t mandate, co-create

Enforcing rules and policies only creates resentment. Rather than mandating in-office work, it’s about co-creating the boundaries together. Asking; what’s the purpose of coming into the office? In which situations is it better to come into the office? – And what do we need in our office space if we do come in? 

As part of my work as a culture coach, I’ve supported teams to enhance their hybrid ways of working; in these sessions we look at what’s actually needed for when we come in the office, and we focus on what boundaries are needed for when teams work in the office and remotely. 

If we all act like adults, we all know when and why we need to be in a space for a reason. The same goes for our work. We know that some meetings just work better when everyone’s together, and others only need to happen online. 

Mandating, in my opinion, is simply lazy culture work. 

Freedom comes with responsibility 

I like to revise the famous Spiderman quote from “with great power comes great responsibility” to “with freedom comes great responsibility”. We are all well aware that freedom also comes with a cost. We are free to eat whatever we want, but we also have to eat healthy so that we don’t get unwell. No matter the choices we have, there is a responsibility that goes with it. 

When organisations consider autonomy, they think that it’s going to be a free-for-all workplace, where people can do what they want and when they want. While this in some part is true, they also have to perform, which means they are ultimately responsible for their performance and the targets they have to hit. Too often targets are set from above, which means teams have no sense of agency over them anyway. Instead, it’s important to encourage individuals to be part of their goal setting, and the team goal setting. And let’s not get started on the fact these are annual! – Targets should be broken down quarterly. 

Increase intrinsic motivation

Another tactic from the old school days is rewards and punishments. This outdated method lures people to behave in order to achieve a bonus, or some kind of reward. I’ve written previously about the failing of external rewards here. But ultimately, what companies need to do is increase the intrinsic motivation people have. What is it they want to achieve? What do they aspire to grow into? 

Too few companies work with their teams to truly support people in discovering their personal motivations and how that interlinks with their work and projects. If the work is boring, or unchallenging, people are never going to be motivated, the external reward system will be short-lived. 

Of course this isn’t a full guide of how to shift the dial on bringing about greater autonomy in the workplace. But if you’re scared that coffee-badging is going to start happening in your culture, you may want to drastically rethink what type of workplace you’re creating.

Where it could all lead?

Let’s imagine organisations don’t lean in to creating greater autonomy. Instead, turning up the dial on supervision. For example, spyware on the coffee machines, electronic tagging devices, biometric sign-in. It all gets a bit Orwellian. And who’s going to stick around to experience that? Very few people. 

After experiencing the flexibility that came post-covid, people do not want to go back, so instead we’ll begin to see a surge in people exiting places that don’t offer the autonomy people need. 

Some will remain in the traps of the corporate cogs checking in and out, but those people will never fully be engaged or interested in the work they do. They will see the job as just that, a job. Something you go to in exchange for money. So you may as well employ robots.  

On the other end of the spectrum will be those who know that work can be more than just a job. Those who are able to create meaning and impact in what they do, and who can balance their work and life, and find deep fulfillment in their experience.  

Which end of the spectrum your company facilitates is a choice, but don’t think that coffee-badging is the end of the pushback.


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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.