Coffeebot: a tool for having hallway conversations while working remotely

  • Annie Cherkaev

Since the onset of working remotely, we’ve built a program at Galois called Coffeebot to help facilitate virtual “coffee chats” in support of maintaining our culture through spontaneous exchanges. Today we’re releasing Coffeebot, and we’re happy to share it along with simple instructions on how to set-up your own!

Percolating the idea

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and physical distancing measures, Galois, along with many other companies, shifted to remote workflows to enable employees to work from home. We were very fortunate to have had established infrastructure to work in a distributed fashion already, so this part of the transition went smoothly. 

However, an adverse effect of being physically distanced is unintentional social distancing. We can go about our day-to-day work independently (even in our PJs if we want!), only connecting with colleagues via video conferencing systems during planned meetings. 

As GoogleHangouts, Zoom, and Mattermost have indefinitely become the main forums for discussion; we found ourselves missing out on the joys of serendipitous, face-to-face communication that once came about naturally while being together in physical spaces. 

Can a coffee stain exist when no one is around to notice?

Research shows that informal conversations, whether about work or personal things, have various outcomes such as the accomplishment of work-related tasks, collaboration between different groups of people, underpinning of the workplace culture, and enabling social activities. These interactions happen seamlessly when people are in the same place. They are an essential part of how Galwegians learn what our coworkers are up to, discover opportunities, and foster community.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this works. As you’re grabbing lunch, you might bump into someone in the common room and ask about their work or how a project is going. In response, they might bring up a need they have in your area of interest or an idea that translates to your own work. In another case, you might pass by someone in the hallway and ask how their weekend was only to learn that they love running as much as you do, so you start an after-work running group. In many other situations, you just have a delightful conversation with someone that makes your connection stronger.

Under the current circumstances, it seems laborious, almost unnatural, to find out what our colleagues are up to via an email or scheduling a meeting to simply have a conversation. However, it’s evident that the heart of Galois culture is in the frequent exchanges, casual interactions, and informal conversations. To help us bridge this gap, we developed a tool called Coffeebot to simulate the fortuitous encounters we once cherished at the office.

How Coffeebot works

Coffeebot is a program that randomly pairs up willing participants for a weekly “coffee chat.” Anyone who would like to participate can sign up on a spreadsheet by adding their name, email address, and a list of topics that they like talking about. 

Coffeebot runs on Monday mornings, pairing people up and sending each participant an email letting them know who they have been scheduled to chat with, along with each person’s listed topics of interest. The topics each person lists aren’t meant to be prescriptive; they’re only there to make it easier to talk to someone you don’t yet know — at least you know something about them!

Set-up your own!

Many people at Galois have enjoyed Coffeebot as a way to have serendipitous conversations with coworkers. Since it was well-received internally, we’re happy to be releasing the code for others to use. If you’re a member of an organization that cares about culture and collaboration like we do at Galois, but are lacking the avenue (ie. being in physical spaces with others) that once made it possible, Coffeebot could work well for you! 

The implementation is written in appscript, and runs off of a spreadsheet. It’s easy to set-up and doesn’t require any programming knowledge to make it work. If you’d like to set-up your own Coffeebot, follow these steps here. We hope you might enjoy running your own Coffeebot.