Greater Noida-based Anupam Gupta travels 120km to make a trip to his office in Gurugram and back home. He does the trek twice a week. His organisation, a tech company where he works as a senior pre-sales solution architect, started hybrid working four months ago after a few years of remote working in the covid era. Though office transportation is provided, the fixed timings do not match Gupta’s. His schedule is more dependent on interactions with international clients. He ends up making enough of an appearance on office days to mark his presence, grab coffee or lunch with colleagues, and leave to do most of his work at home.
Gupta’s reluctant presence in the office is echoed by some employees in reaction to return-to-office (RTO) mandates. In fact, there’s a term for it: coffee badging. It describes employees showing up in the office because they have to, swiping in, spending some time to mark their presence, grabbing a coffee or lunch with colleagues, and leaving. “I wasn't aware that there's a term to this. Yes, I plead guilty of being a coffee badger for at least half of my recent office visits,” laughs Gupta, 43. “Visiting the office is an obligation one must fulfill. Travelling to work is an ordeal. Office parking and workstation availability is scarce. Four hours on the road makes me prefer working from home.”
While there’s no statistics on the trend in the Indian landscape, a US report shows that the coffee badging trend is becoming a way for workers to get around return to office mandates. The 2023 State of Hybrid Work report by Owl Labs, a hybrid work technology company, for instance, shows 69% of the surveyed American employees feeling that they were required to be in the office because of traditional work expectations; and 58% of hybrid employees “coffee badge”.
Tanuja Agarwala, human resource management and organisational behavior professor at Delhi university’s Faculty of Management Studies, sees coffee badging as a way in which employees express their resentment for being forced to come to office. “Employees now view work from home and flexibility as the new contract, where performance or contribution matters rather than presenteeism. Therefore, when firms are seeking to implement ‘return to office’ plans, employees perceive this as unreasonable.”
Coffee badging may also be displayed in ways beyond brief appearances, where employees come to the office not for deep or productive work, but for a social outlet to catch up with colleagues, break the isolation of working remotely, and enjoy some team bonding and camaraderie. Whichever way, coffee badging appears to reflect a deeper change in traditional work culture where conventional spaces and schedules are viewed as unnecessary and oppressive.
Using time in the office to socialise is necessarily not a bad thing. Chirag Thakkar, 32, recently joined a publishing house. Both his present and prior workplace required employees to be in the office twice a week. “Most meetings and collaborative aspects of work are planned for these days,” says Thakkar. “This is also the time to bond with other colleagues, get to know them better and develop friendships and camaraderie. This becomes the bedrock of the work you will do with people.” But he believes a monthly office day is adequate for this, regularity only useful for new employees to acclimatise in their first year. “As you get more familiar with the work process and culture, I don’t see any need for being in the office frequently. What helps are occasional mixers, team lunches, huddles and brainstorms,” he says.
At the Gurugram-based telecom company where project manager Richa Singh, 47, works, there is a three-days-in-office policy. Working with global stakeholders does not require her physical presence in the physical office, but she finds this time useful to connect with her manager and colleagues. “I mostly spend the whole day in the office when I visit but I have observed multiple people coming for a couple of hours, spending time with friends either just talking, grabbing a coffee or lunch and then leaving. So, they may be spending just half a day in the office and doing the rest of the work from home,” she says.
While coffee badging can foster collaboration and connection, Singh’s observation highlights the imbalance between employees like her spending the complete working day in the office on mandated days, while others spend just a few hours. “I like coming to the office for the social connect and working without distractions. I now have fewer engagements at home since my daughter has left for college,” she says. “But people with families, young kids, or living far from office may need some extra motivation to come to work.” Not everyone, however, may have as generous a view as Singh’s.
Manu Saigal, director (general staffing), at HR solutions organisation Adecco India, believes that employees seemingly gaming the system, while others put in their all, could lead to an erosion of trust and fairness. “Resentment can fester within teams, questioning each other’s commitment and work ethic.” Other coffee badging downsides, according to her, include reduced productivity if workers feel pressured to be seen in the office when not conducive with their working style; companies’ investment in office space and benefits being underused, diverting resources from other crucial needs; and a breeding of inauthenticity and distrust through a company culture built on presenteeism.
Gupta says unless the job requires visiting the office, it is more productive to work remotely. “With checks and balances in place, to catch moonlighting for example, I think remote work is and should be here to stay,” he says.
Thakkar adds the “office deserves an obituary that is long due”. He highlights several companies’ ridding themselves of large spaces, creating smaller hot desking offices with huddle areas where employees can gather occasionally for mixers and brainstorming. “But no actual work in terms of deliverables ever gets achieved by physical presence in the office,” he insists. “I think those days are, and are better, behind us.”
It is unlikely, and not possible in various roles and industries, for remote working to completely replace physical presence. But coffee badging should not be dismissed as a passing trend, for it reflects and signifies a shift in the way employees want to work and how traditional and rigid schedules and working styles can no longer be the norm.
“At Adecco, we strongly believe that hybrid work can be a win-win for organisations and employees. By focusing on flexibility, trust, outcomes, and a purpose-driven office environment, ‘coffee badging’ can be transformed into a sign of healthy collaboration and engaged employees” says Saigal. "It can be an opportunity for strategic face-to-face sessions, knowledge sharing, and building rapport.” She suggests reimagining the office as hubs for collaboration, innovation, and social interaction; and having transparent conversations about work needs, concerns, and preferred workstyles to create a hybrid model that works for everyone.
Agarwala believes there are no quick solutions or one-size-fits-all approach to navigating the shift from flexibility of remote working to office going. “Firms and managers will have to deal with the tension between the RTO mandate and employee preference for flexibility gradually and through communication with the employees.” She suggests companies reconsider things like compensation, for instance the time and effort to commute to work becoming an important compensable factor; office hours; alternate metrics for performance measurements; and establishing clear communication channels. “Firms need to find ways to make employees want to come to the office.”
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.