How 2,000+ random coffee dates changed our company culture

Ryan Holmes
4 min readJan 29, 2018

My company has been trying something we call #randomcoffee. Employees from different departments are matched up — blind-date style — to get to know one another over a cup of coffee (or beverage of choice). So far, more than 1,000 people have signed up, and 2,000 new introductions have been made over coffee.

Why does this matter? Anyone who’s worked in a big company knows that, despite best efforts, invisible walls end up going up between teams and departments. Sales and marketing might as well be on different planets sometimes, for example. You work closely with a small group of coworkers and most everybody else is, well, just a face you pass in the hallway.

All of which, of course, is terrible … on so many levels. Coordination breaks down. Information gaps develop. Customers get a disjointed experience. Culture suffers. Not to mention, you miss the chance to meet some really interesting people.

When we were a startup, this wasn’t an issue: We all worked in the same room. But in a short span, we grew to nearly 1,000 employees in almost a dozen offices around the world. Luckily, a group of our early employees saw a threat to our culture … and opted to do something. Taking a cue from programs like Ten Thousand Coffees, Mixer and Innovate Brew, they decided to see if coffee could succeed in bringing Hootsuite’s employees together.

Thinking up a #randomcoffee program

#randomcoffee started out, as most initiatives do, with a Google spreadsheet and a bunch of emails. Eventually, 128 people signed up for their first coffee encounter with a random colleague. We wrote a quick-and-dirty algorithm to ensure each pairing brought together people from a different department, then blasted out emails to the lucky duos. (Check out this post by Noel Pullen for all the nitty gritty details.)

And … it worked. As the first wave of meetings unfolded, people started sharing selfies on Facebook and stories around the office. Participants gained new insight into the workings of other departments. People realized they faced common issues and brought new perspectives to problems. Ideas for future collaborations and projects took root. It was assisted serendipity in action.

On a personal level, for example, I met up with a training consultant who had just joined the company. When I mentioned I was thinking about starting my own weekly newsletter to stay in touch with employees, she did me one better. Her former boss at Apple, she explained, had sent out weekly video updates, with great engagement. I was hooked and have been doing videos ever since.

Most importantly, though, it was fun. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone asked when the next #randomcoffee would be.

Going High-Tech

Being a software company (Hootsuite is a social media management platform), we decided to take things to the next level. During one of our hackathons — company-wide programming marathons, where we explore new ideas and passion projects — one team poured its energy into developing a working #randomcoffee website. The goal was to automate the process of matching coffee partners, making it as easy as signing up for a newsletter.

Just as important, we wanted to find a way to roll this out to other companies so they could experience the team-building power of a little caffeine. We built a basic tool, and in the intervening months evolved it out with more features.

Eventually, this evolved — thanks to a real labor of love by our senior director of software development, Ken Britton — into a product where people from any company can pair up with one of their co-workers for a cup of joe.

The level of enthusiasm has been eye-opening. What I’ve learned is that employees genuinely want to get to know their colleagues better, and it turns out a simple cup of coffee (helped along by a little technology) can provide the opening. It’s the kind of growth and culture hack that costs almost nothing and pays immediate returns — in terms not just of cross-departmental cooperation but overall morale.

We’re already looking for ways to make the experience better. Possibilities include developing a calendar-matching feature and adding in options for #randomcocktails or #randomlunches (with four or more people).

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Ryan Holmes

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.