What will you be doing for lunch today?
If you’re an average American office worker, chances are you’ll be quickly eating something at your desk while you continue working.
But what if you could sit down at a table with your colleagues and enjoy a nice, home-cooked meal together? No laptops, no agendas, just food and conversation.
The latest trend to hit forward-thinking companies is the “family-style” eating experience. A riff on what was once considered catering, this unique approach emphasizes the ambiance of the meal, and the boost to morale that can come from sharing mealtime together.
But is this really practical for most offices? Why would a company even want to take on the role of dining host when there are so many other responsibilities to manage?
The answer may lie in the numbers behind what makes family-style so unique.
Commensality—meaning “a social group that eats together”—in the workplace is not a new concept. Firefighters, who have been working and living together in a way similar to the traditional family, are among the most well-known examples of this idea. While firefighters are free to get food from anywhere, their preference to cook and enjoy meals together has been admired and studied by business leaders for years.
Cornell University’s Kevin Kniffin led one such study, spending time at 13 firehouses and surveying nearly 400 officers to learn about what makes mealtime special.
While there are certainly many factors that bond firefighters (namely the dangerous nature of their work), Kniffin’s team found “significant positive association between commensality and work-group performance” in firehouses.
Mealtime—more than many other social interactions—is a surprisingly intimate thing. In another study, Kniffin asked people to rate how jealous they would be if their romantic partners were contacted by an ex-partner and engaged in a variety of social activities. Across both men and women, “meals elicit more jealousy than face-to-face interactions that do not involve eating, such as having coffee.”
Eating isn’t just eating. It’s a powerful social interaction.
We also know that dining as a family in the home has measurable advantages. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse draws a strong correlation between children who frequently dine with parents and those who are better able to withstand the pressures of drugs and alcohol. While the jury is out on exactly why the brain responds positively to eating together, social interaction appears to help with memory and cognitive function as people grow older, as well.
What does this mean for office life? Table conversation is unique from our other daily interactions, such as taking a phone call or sending an email. Unlike board meeting banter, the deep and meaningful narratives we can share over lunch have powerful side effects; for businesses, this provides the same critical opportunity to bond and work out stressful issues. Co-workers who commiserate over food can become a robust support system to navigate all of life’s obstacles.
“Being in a work environment with several departments under one roof can at times feel like people are working in their own bubble,” says AnneMarie Kelly, Head of Office Operation at SocialCode. Her office recently enlisted the help of a meal service to offer regular family-style dining to team members. “Come lunchtime, we all have one big thing in common—the yummy meal we get to enjoy together.”
There is also the matter of the food being served. If companies can provide delicious and nutritious meals, presented in a welcoming manner, right there in the office, the temptation to go off-site and binge on churros is a little less overwhelming. High-quality, family-style dishes help co-workers remain accountable to their lifestyle goals—which can lead to a healthier, more productive team.
Still not convinced? The practice may make financial sense, as well. In addition to recouping lost time spent when workers choose to go offsite for meals (and often come back late due to a number of reasons from traffic to slow service), there are some tangible hard savings opportunities to consider with family-style dining. While not necessary for employers to pick up the tab, big tech companies have been plying workers with free food for years now, often employing a party-inspired theme to keep employees closer to headquarters. These all-you-can-eat taco bars have been effective at improving morale and boosting reported “happiness,” which greatly reduces turnover costs. Google even credits the free food for their best money-making ideas.
San Francisco-based food tech startup ZeroCater has made family-style dining in the office their business and has even done their own study on the dollars and cents behind the practice. Their survey of 100 business owners and employees recognized that collaboration is a crucial conduit of productivity; 90 percent of employers say that providing an environment for shared meals resulted in stronger workplace friendships. If that wasn’t compelling enough, 79 percent of employers surveyed share that they use these meals as a way to onboard new employees and solidify working partnerships from the very beginning for new hires, and 67 percent of employers credit the meals for their effective retention strategy. Finally, with many of these meal plans occurring in busy urban hubs—where traffic and “rush hour” symptoms plague workers trying to get a quick bite—88 percent of employers enjoy greater efficiency from their work teams who don’t have to waste time in pursuit of off-campus eats.
Ready to try family-style in your office? Kelly has some advice for those considering making the switch:
“Headcount is important,” she stresses, reminding managers that there is a real danger of running out of food if you estimate low. Since each vendor has their own definition of a “serving,” it might take some trial and error to determine which vendors can best meet your team’s needs. If chosen wisely, repeat food service vendors can get employees excited about meals in the office. “It takes times to get to know your favorite vendors that provide ample amount of food for your headcount.”
There are no set rules as to how often eating together must occur to provide an advantage. Likewise, it’s still something that many businesses can’t afford to do more than one time a week. Whether the employer offers food as part of a comprehensive worker benefit package – or employees pitch in to cover the cost – there can be no denying that dining together could be part of a winning work culture. Moving away from the cafeteria (and pushing teams closer to the model we enjoy with our families at home) may finally be the answer to your team-building woes.