In an article for The New York Times this week, Priya Krishna explored a growing trend among companies--more and more, businesses are offering their employees free food. While the spread can range anywhere from bread by a toaster to elaborate delicacies handcrafted by a professional chef, putting something in workers' bellies through the day is becoming both expected and obligatory.
Krishna cites a few reasons for this. Companies say they hope that the munchies can keep workers on task or improve employee health, for example, both of which can have an impact on productivity and the bottom line. Science backs this up, as good food influences areas such as physical fatigue and learning.
Then there are companies who use food to reinforce their values or mission, or to test out their own new products. A meal also can make an unappealing job like a tough, long meeting seem more emotionally palatable. And of course, leaders also give employees food as reward incentives, such as catering a meal if a quota is met or project is finished ahead of schedule. Still others use food to fuel a more competitive, creative edge within workers, holding contests.
All of these rationales make sense, especially since, as Krishna notes, the cost of offering food as a perk is usually less than the expense of other options that could attract and retain employees.
But the real power of food might be in something on which Krishna was fairly silent--the ability to bond people together. As Dr. Nina Radcliff writes in The Washington Times, "At the table, we share stories, build upon relationships, learn from each other's mistakes and triumphs; and not only creating bonds that define us...but also architecting the hallmarks of our wellbeing."
Consider, for example, research from Columbia University, which found that 71 percent of teens consider chatting and spending time with family the best part of family dinners. Younger kids also show a greater sense of security and feeling of belonging. Other data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development connects a lack of eating meals with family with increased student truancy.
And it's not just kids who enjoy meals together. In an article for The Atlantic, Cody Delistraty notes that relaxed, easy-paced meals are sacred in many parts of the world, such as France, Mexico and Cambodia. There, it's common to see people gathering in parks and squares for more communal meals. Delistraty also cites Alice Julier, who argues that eating together has the potential to shift people's perspectives, making individuals more likely to view others as equals.
Food, then, can be much more than a tool for eventually getting more money into the company's pockets. It is a way to break barriers, to create a culture of warmth and acceptance. In setting a team member a place at the table, you're able to say that they have a place, and that they can rely on you for more than just a paycheck. Whereas certain other perks arguably could be viewed as generational fads, this inclusion, support and affirmation is a need that will never disappear, no matter what direction your company takes.
All this said, business lunches where you knock out agenda points as you eat are certainly OK, but you can probably do better if you want a meal to really connect everybody who attends. Make sure there are opportunities for workers to eat together where their only job is to enjoy each other's company, rather than to focus on the operational company. The annual company picnic or monthly potluck likely isn't enough. Shoo people away from at-desk eating and create a space that feels truly ready for a no-rush meal--a homey, real wood dining table and chairs people can use every single day instead of cold cafeteria table, for example, totally can change the atmosphere.
Because today's workforces have people of all backgrounds and include a wide range of dietary needs, if you want to use food to build your business, make getting there a collaborative process. Ask workers what they'd like on the menu or what accommodations they require. From there, it's just a matter of figuring out what's in your budget and getting the logistics of food preparation or delivery worked out.
Which leads to a delicious concept. In the end, maybe all this business stuff really can be as easy as pie.