When you want your  employees to be more creative thinkers, you just have to get your timing down, suggests a new study.

Granted, the study was geared toward students, but I think we can extrapolate the findings and apply them to the working world.

Conducted by Dermot Breslin, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at the University of Sheffield, the experiment had groups of students brainstorm ideas at different times throughout the day.

The winner? Lunchtime.

"The midday period represents a unique opportunity for group creativity within the working day," Breslin wrote about his findings.

As has been found in previous studies, there seems to be a peak of alertness right around four hours after people wake up, meaning that period of time just before, including and just after lunch is ideal for any group activities that involve brainstorming ideas.

For his study, Breslin divided 270 business undergraduates into groups and had them try to come up with as many uses as possible for three common household items: a coat hanger, a blank sheet of paper and a paper cup.

Students that did the brainstorming activity between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. typically came up with twice as many ideas as their counterparts who did the activity at 9 a.m. or 3 p.m.

In his paper about the study, published in the journal Studies in Higher Education, Breslin said there seems to be an "enhancing effect" in socialization and cognitive processes right around lunchtime.

"As the group enters this optimal time period, increased alertness, arousal and positive affect result in a more fluent social interaction, and with this higher creative fluency," he wrote. "The scheduling of creative work and educational activities should thus target this window of creativity."

But, does it work at work?

I've never consciously tried this trick at my businesses, but I may have unconsciously tried it for years. (I find I do some of my best work unconsciously.) For several years now, we have provided company-paid lunches at work every Wednesday and had monthly potluck lunches where everyone brings some food from home.

These are not meetings and employees are not obligated to discuss work during them. On the contrary, they are opportunities for employees to socialize with each other and promote a positive environment.

However, because work is the one thing all of our employees have in common, conversations at these gatherings often do turn towards work, especially if there is a project or issue that we're stuck on. Having different departments come together to break bread and socialize often leads to people who wouldn't normally be discussing work together having fruitful conversations.

Just last week, the sales team was having some difficulty deciding how to upgrade our sales automation process. During our usual Wednesday lunch, a woman from the marketing department had a suggestion that ended up being crucial part of the new system.

She normally would not have been in a meeting to discuss the upgrading of the sales automation process, but having the open and unofficial lunch "meeting" allowed her the opportunity to make what was really just an off-the-cuff remark that turned out to be important.

Benefits of free lunch

Free lunch has started to become pretty standard fare at companies for good reason. Much like with my own experience, you get fresh perspectives from people that can lead to great ideas.

As career coach Jennifer Kim says, offering free lunch to employees:

  • Creates a competitive advantage for recruiting based on company culture

  • Leads to spontaneous encounters and more creativity

  • Allows employees to be more authentic at work and not always their "work selves"

  • Gets entire teams to bond, making the company stronger

How to introduce free lunch

If your company has not done the free lunch thing yet, it's a worthy endeavor to try. Your employees will be grateful and the entire company will become stronger as a whole. Don't just make an announcement over the intercom, though. Ease into it.

Kim suggests the best way to introduce free lunch in your company is to:

  • Announce to your employees what you're doing and why

  • Make it optional, but stress that everyone is welcome

  • Establish a basic set of guidelines (like not starting until noon so nobody can get there earlier than anyone else)

  • Make sure leadership is partaking

  • Start small, like with pizza, until you can offer a fuller spread

  • Use icebreaker questions to get conversation flowing, if necessary

  • Experiment to liven things up and break up cliques (like playing light background music and having random seating arrangements like grouping people by birthday month one day and hobbies the next)

Once you get the routine established, you just have to sit back and reap the rewards of increased creativity, strengthened team bonds and a more dynamic corporate culture.