I used to work for a company that provided free lunch. I hadn’t thought about that in a while, nor had I though about food as a strategy for employee happiness, but leadership author John Baldoni recently posted this article on Forbes.com and it got me thinking:
Motivation by Mouth: Does Free Food Make for a Happier Workplace? -… onforb.es/Yp4GLd
— John Baldoni (@JohnBaldoni) February 21, 2013
So do things like free food make for a happier workplace? In my observation, no. It’s not about the food. It’s about what the food represents.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a fast-growing, hard-working company of human resources consultants. They hired smart, nice people who did ambitious work for Fortune 500 companies. The firm earned a strong reputation in their industry as a tough, but good place to work.
Among the quirky little perks of this company was free lunch. The stated business argument had been that it was better to keep these busy, billing-by-the-hour professionals productive at the office than wasting time traversing the company’s typically suburban locations to forage for a sandwich and a cookie.
But it was never about the cookie.
The reality is that free lunch created collisions. It created community. It created culture. It made it easy to run into people you hadn’t seen for a while, and to ask them about their latest project (which often may have connected to something you were working on, too.) It made it simple to schedule a regular check-in with your manager or a colleague, since you could do it over lunch (since they were going to eat, too!). It accelerated ideas, collaboration, problem-solving, and even careers.
As the company grew and decided it needed to step away from private ownership to become a public entity, many symbols of the “old” way of doing things were examined, and eliminated. To some, “free lunch” had just become an expense line that brought no visible shareholder value. And so it went away.
And with it went simple, culturally-supported opportunities for talented but busy professionals to connect. To talk. To share. To innovate. To problem solve. Regularly. Openly. To create kinds of behaviors that companies are spending millions of dollars to stimulate in their now too isolated, too tech-dependent cultures. The kind of behaviors that get results.
The moral of the story is that food—and other expenses that we might label as being “costs” in our companies–are not the automatic paths to employee happiness. But the opportunity to share food, like at lunch, can have a powerful impact on employee engagement and helping our teams communicate, connect, and create results. So before you cancel the cookies, consider what the cookie can do for you.
(With apologies and love to all the teams I led. I should have fed you more often.)
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