In just two years, a friend's startup has grown from three employees to three hundred. early on, everyone knew each other; now he's concerned about the impact on culture and teamwork.

So he's introduced a lunchtime lottery: Three days a week, randomly-matched employees eat lunch together. The goal? Meet new people, learn about different areas of the company, do a little networking, and hopefully discover ways to help each other -- and by extension, help the company. 

The idea isn't new. Plenty of people -- especially salespeople, aspiring entrepreneurs, and job seekers -- use some version of the Never Eat Lunch Alone strategy to network and connect.

But if the idea of constantly having lunch with people you don't know (or wouldn't otherwise dine with) sounds exhausting, don't feel bad. It actually is.

Research shows a forced, or in some way "artificial," networking lunch can leave you feeling much more fatigued later in the day, affecting both your mental energy and your performance.

While that sounds odd, since a little socializing leaves many people feeling recharged and refreshed, researchers determined what matters is your perceived sense of control over the people you eat lunch with:

Although specific energy-relevant activities had a main effect on end-of-workday fatigue, each of these was moderated by the degree of autonomous choice associated with the break. Specifically, for activities that supported the psychological needs of relatedness and competence... as lunch break autonomy increased, effects switched from increasing fatigue to reducing fatigue.

We conclude that lunch break autonomy plays a complex and pivotal role in conferring the potential energetic benefits of lunch break activities.

Or in non researcher-speak: If I want to eat lunch with you, that time can leave me feeling refreshed and recharged.

But if I have to eat lunch with you... I'll end the day feeling even more fatigued than if I worked through my lunch break.


It's All About Control

Imagine we're having lunch together and I don't know you. What if we don't hit it off? What if the conversation is awkward? What if we have nothing in common? I won't stress about it ahead of time... but I will think about it.

Then, during lunch, I'll need to be focused, engaged, listening closely... being "on" requires a higher level of energy than casual conversation with friends. 

Or even working at my desk. 

And that's great if I want to meet you: Because I can help you, because I can learn from you, because we have something in common, etc.

But we have to meet each other because our names were drawn out of a hat... then that lack of what the researchers call "employee lunch break autonomy" can have a direct impact on end-of-workday fatigue and performance.

What To Do Instead

Creating an environment where employees get to know each other -- and hopefully find ways to collaborate across departments or functional areas -- is important.

But putting a lunch lottery in place may not be the best way to do it: Not only is it fatiguing for employees, it's too unfocused. Instead of creating an environment where collaboration is natural, you're left hoping that people will somehow discover ways to work together.

Here's a better approach: Identify a business need, then create a cross-functional team to solve that need. 

That way, people will meet each other... but they'll do so based on an underlying purpose.

They'll work together. They'll learn about each other, as employees and as people.

They'll naturally form a bond that results from sharing a sense of purpose. 

And they'll remember the success they shared together -- which will make them much more likely to offer help, and ask for help, in the future. 

Which is something a lunch lottery can never accomplish.