Breaking Bread at Work Boosts Bottom Line, Study Claims

By Lisa Petrillo January 12, 2016

Could the concept of communal feasting in the workplace actually boost productivity?

A Cornell University team found that it does.

“From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue,” said Cornell researcher Kevin Kniffin, lead author of the study Eating Together at the Firehouse: How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of Firefighters. “That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

Kniffin said that “the mundane yet powerful activity of eating” can play a role in accomplishing important business goals, such as:

• Improving collaboration among co-workers, who might not talk with one another if not for meal breaks.

• Increasing productivity, by minimizing time spent traveling offsite for meals.

• Lowering insurance costs, by providing healthy food at onsite cafeterias.

Most Companies Don’t Provide Onsite Food

The Cornell findings, however, go against the tide for current U.S. corporate culture. An estimated 75 percent of companies don’t provide onsite food service, the traditional corporate cafeteria having gone the way of men who wear brimmed hats. In addition, results from another study indicate that fewer than 20 percent of workers even take a lunch break away from their desks.

A few corporations, like Apple and Google, do provide their employees with nutritious and inventive dining choices, and feed their workers—well—for free. The goal, company officials have said, is to provide healthier food choices and to reduce workplace distractions.

But company cafeterias also promote conversation and idea-swapping among workers, or what Google calls “casual collisions.” It was during just such a lunchroom conversation that Gmail, the company’s groundbreaking electronic mail program, was born.

Fourteen percent of U.S. companies either subsidize or offer free food to their workers, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

While companies shy away from disclosing the cost of such perks, independent estimates suggest it costs Google about $30 a day to provide each employee with three meals. Multiplied by its 9,600 employees in Mountain View, Calif., and New York, that adds up to more than $72 million a year.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who founded a global media and financial services company that bears his name, has been feeding employees since 1981. The motivation, said a company spokesman, is that it’s good business to protect the organization’s main asset, its employees. New York City-based Bloomberg L.P. offers famously innovative free food in nearly 200 offices and news bureaus worldwide, including menus in some locations that offer vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher and wellness-approved offerings.

“Bloomberg employees work hard, and we want to reward their dedication,” said Suzy Walther, global head of talent and recruiting for Bloomberg. “It’s not just a hot meal; it’s a [way for] colleagues to forge new connections.”

Trend May Be A Return To Company Cafeterias

The bottom line is that people have to work, and workers have to eat. So the trend is moving back to company cafeterias, according to the National Restaurant Association. One of the biggest growth areas in the food industry is in providing on-the-jobsite food, which is typically offered by an offsite contractor and accounted for a projected $11.2 billion in sales in 2015, according to an association spokeswoman. The association projects approximately 3 percent annual growth in this sector through 2019.

One of the largest workplace catering firms is Compass Group North America, serving 8 million meals a day in locations in all 50 states. One of the chief reasons clients hire the caterer, noted a Compass spokeswoman, is to encourage workers to eat healthier meals. And workers are responding, she said, with healthy food constituting 4 out of the top 5 customer requests: salad bars, specialty salads, soups, and grilled fish or chicken. The fifth customer request was deli sandwiches.

From the perspective of food service professionals, providing onsite food is especially challenging in certain workplaces like hospitals, where employees work long shifts, get limited lunch breaks and often perform stressful jobs.

Dirk Noteboom, a registered dietician and vice president of Culinary and Nutrition Solutions at Overland Park, Kansas-based Hospital Housekeeping Systems, a hospital services corporation, studies how to keep customers fed and healthy at 45 contracted hospitals around the country, from Alaska to the Southeast.

To encourage in-house dining and workplace cohesiveness, his hospitals create themed menus, like his recent “smash potato bar” with mix-ins for baked potatoes, and holiday menus, such as the one featuring traditional Southern food on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, complete with cornbread and black-eyed peas.

“That’s what we really provide for them—a different, nonclinical environment for the staff and visitors to decompress,” said Noteboom.

Research on Firehouses Shows Sharing Meals Means Better Performance

Cornell researcher Kniffin and fellow researchers Brian Wansink, Carol M. Devine and Jeffery Sobal were able to make a connection between teams that shared a meal and better team performance. .

The research team analyzed fire departments in a large, unnamed city with more than 50 firehouses, most of them with kitchens where firefighters tended to pool funds to extend their food budgets and divide the kitchen chores.

The Cornell researchers found that firefighters who ate together most often earned higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, those who did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

Lisa Petrillo is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.