Sharing Tacos Breaks Down Workplace Differences

Companies are serving their workers communal meals to help build relationships

By Nevin Martell January 15, 2020
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tacos

​Whether presented at family meals, holiday get-togethers, restaurants or coffee shops, food has the rare power to bring people together in myriad ways, and companies are capitalizing on the connective power of food to build community in their workforces. 

At TechnologyAdvice, a firm located in Nashville, Tenn., that specializes in connecting buyers and sellers of business technology, food is often used to break employees out of their personal and professional molds. There is a holiday cookie exchange, an annual chili cook-off and a Thanksgiving potluck. Participation by the company's 50 employees is optional.

One of most unique events is the company's monthly First Friday presentation, when two staff members each discuss a book or hobby about which they're passionate. One employee taught a class on how to make sourdough bread; another gave an elementary Chinese language lesson. The micro-seminars are accompanied by a dessert and drink that tie in to the time of the year. In May, churros and margaritas were served in a nod to Cinco de Mayo, while in December, cookies and hot chocolate were provided.

TechnologyAdvice offers all employees complimentary catered lunches four days a week, which they can eat together in the break room or outside at picnic tables. "We don't want lunch to be something people have to think about and worry about," said Jen Chandler, the company's office and human resources coordinator. "Better still, we've seen how people can … meet people [other than those] they normally interact with at these meals."

Free catered lunches are also on the menu for all employees four days a week at Zoom Video Communications, a remote-conferencing services company with approximately 500 employees at its headquarters in San Jose, Calif., and another 2,000 or so spread out across offices around the world. The meals take their inspiration from global influences. "In two weeks, I eat my way around the world," the firm's chief people officer, Lynne Oldham, said.

These meals are designed to accommodate employees' various dietary regimens and restrictions to ensure everyone can eat. The idea is to bring employees together outside of their professional interactions. "We are really trying to create an opportunity to pause and spend time together," Oldham said. "We don't discourage eating at your desk, but we really don't encourage it."

The company goes a step further once a month by observing notable holidays such as Chinese New Year, Diwali and Persian New Year or observing awareness-raising celebrations such as Pride Month, Black History Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month. A themed lunch is complemented by treats, activities, performances and giveaways. The get-togethers are planned internally by approximately 100 volunteers dubbed "the happy crew."

"We're a diverse and inclusive group," Oldham said. "So these events are a way to celebrate each other, our differences and our similarities. "

There is a free taco bar or barbecue once a month at Avalara, a Seattle-based financial technology company with offices around the U.S. and the world and a total workforce of approximately 2,500 employees. "These meals help tear down artificial silos," Avalara's senior director of engagement and diversity, Amelia Ransom, said. "It solidifies and deepens relationships among and across teams, particularly on teams that are working at different times or shifts. And it's a way to build the relationships that lead to collaboration."

The communal meals encourage employees to meet their colleagues throughout the company and put faces to names. "It's really easy to sit behind your e-mail and say, 'I don't like that person,' " Ransom said. "But then sit across from them and share a taco. It's hard to [say] that afterward."

To break down the stratification between different levels of employees, members of Avalara's leadership teams are asked to serve these meals. That "officers eat last" mentality is taken to the next level at the monthly pancake breakfast with CEO Scott McFarlane, who cooks for a group of employees whose names are chosen from a virtual hat. As the group eats, the conversation can focus on whatever employees want to discuss, professional or personal. Ultimately, the goal is for the staff to feel truly connected with McFarlane and for him to show his appreciation for their work.

"It's a way of saying, 'I see you. I want to be seen by you, and I want to spend some time with you authentically,' " Ransom said.

Nevin Martell is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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