What I learned from a year of baking cake for the office

Throughout 2015 I made cake for my colleagues every week. I work in an open plan office with around 75 potential cake consumers. Usually I’d bake on a Sunday night ready for Monday, when I’d put the cake in a kitchen that isn’t near my desk.

I asked for feedback on the cakes, and changed the recipes based on what people said. I also went through 9 iterations of the feedback form to try to improve the information I was getting. On every ‘cake day’ I used Twitter to broadcast what was happening with the cake, including the data I’d record about it on a publicly available Google spreadsheet.

After a few months a ‘cake day’ started like this:

…and I stuck to pretty much the same process after that. It cost me around £250 in ingredients and an hour a week of my time.

I had no reasons for doing this beyond a) cake makes people happy; and b) sometimes I like doing things that are a bit ridiculous.

Nevertheless, the experience of making cake for a year has made me think about things relevant to my work (making digital products for people) and also about the workplace in general.

I’m not suggesting my cake odyssey has given me any profound insight, but this first hand experience has helped to reinforce a number of things I already ‘knew’.

Here’s my top 5:

1) My assumptions about what people will like or how they will act are wrong

People don’t read forms. Writing ‘PLEASE USE WHOLE NUMBERS’ on the top isn’t going to do any good. If you provide a sample feedback entry with a cross on it, people will circle the number and it will get on your nerves week after week. People will ignore the part where you wrote ‘please leave feedback’ even though you spent the last 52 Sunday nights making them a cake. If people keep saying that the brownies are too dry then don’t worry if your 4th iteration brownie is oozing all over the place and can’t be cut into neat pieces — people are finally going to say it’s the best brownie that they’ve ever had in their entire lives.

2) Anonymity makes people brave

We know this from the internet, but I didn’t make the internet. I did, however, make a great deal of cake for the people that I work with. I wasn’t expecting to get trolled. My favourite comment all year on an otherwise high-scoring cake was

“1 out of 5. Dear oh dear oh dear oh dear. Were you drinking when you made this?”

Thank you, anonymous colleague! Trolling aside, I’m pretty sure the quality and honesty of the suggestions was higher because I didn’t ask people for their names and couldn’t see them taking the cake.

3) People aren’t paying attention to what you are doing

This relates to not making assumptions. After 8 months of consistently making cake every week and laying it out for consumption and feedback with my name on it, I was pretty surprised when I’d come into the kitchen to find people chowing down and they’d say “oh is this you is it? Do you do this every week?” or similar.

I’d constantly have to tell the people who I felt were in particular need of cake when it was there, because the fact that it had been there at the start of the week for the past 11 months hadn’t registered with them.

The whole enterprise brought home some truths about Twitter too. Unless you’re famous in some way (internet famous or otherwise), the chances of people noticing what you are doing on a regular basis on Twitter are slim to none.

4) You won’t get it right first time

Setting aside not getting the cakes right first time, and broadly not aiming to get anything right first time, my experience did teach me about capturing data. I settled into a consistent pattern after 6 months, but regret not having worked it out more in advance. Thoughts about what to record emerged, particularly cost. Then cost per slice. And then being consistent in recording cost so that to save time I could work out which ingredient was which from previous numbers alone, as the formula should have followed the ingredients in the linked recipe.

So if I were starting on a new product at work, I’d want to make sure that I had time to explore without ending up with an unmanageable mountain of rework. If I had my cake time again, I’d record more detail than I did from the beginning in case it was useful later on.

5) You are not the snowball that starts the avalanche

I had this fantasy at the beginning that everybody would be inspired to bake, that we’d have enough cake for the whole team every day of the week, AND it would be consistently delicious because everybody would ask for feedback and get better at making cake.

The reality was that over the course of the year, 4 other cakes were made for everybody by 3 different people. To date, there is no sign of an altruistic baking culture in my workplace.

Colleagues were appreciative though, and from a personal point of view it’s been frequently hilarious. I think I’ll stick at it.

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Head of Data Science at Citizens Advice. These are my personal thoughts on work.

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Dan Barrett

Dan Barrett

Head of Data Science at Citizens Advice. These are my personal thoughts on work.