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Updated Oct 24, 2023

Lunch Is Served! Workplace Meals Improve Productivity

Organizations may see a boost in employee productivity by providing them opportunities to eat together.

Casey Conway headshot
Casey Conway, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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Eating with your colleagues offers more benefits than you might think — not just for employees, but for employers as well. These advantages can include stronger employee relationships as well as increased engagement, inclusiveness, wellness and team morale. A Cornell University study found that employers may see a boost in productivity if they encourage their employees to eat meals together, much like the camaraderie built in many firehouses. 

Researchers found that firefighters who eat meals together experience better job performance as a group than firefighters who dine individually. The study’s authors believe their findings have implications for all organizations looking to improve team performance.

Kevin Kniffin, one of the study’s authors and a visiting assistant professor in Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said eating together is a more intimate task than just looking over an Excel spreadsheet, and that intimacy spills over into work. 

“From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue,” Kniffin said. “That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

Benefits of workplace meals

Based on the study’s results, the Cornell researchers believe employers would do well to look at funding cafeterias and catered meals as investments in employee performance. 

“Although the costs that organizations invest to support onsite eating are clearly measured as direct expenses, our research highlights the opportunity that exists to start measuring and optimizing less direct organizational benefits that can be obtained through institutional support for commensality among coworkers,” the study’s authors wrote.

For the study, researchers spent 15 months conducting interviews and surveys in a large city’s fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked the department’s supervisors to rate the performance of their platoon compared with other fire companies in which they’d served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together. Here are some of the interesting findings:

  • The platoons who ate together most often got higher marks for their team performance, while the platoons that did not eat together received lower performance ratings.
  • The researchers discovered that many firefighters expressed embarrassment when asked about why they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.

The study’s authors believe the results have implications for many organizations, because all employees need to eat each day. “This area of investigation carries significant potential as a mechanism to increase work-group performance within organizations by leveraging natural needs to eat when compared with less mundane activities that would require more complicated employer interventions,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study, funded in part by the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences, was co-authored by Cornell professors Brian Wansink, Carol Devine and Jeffery Sobal.

Importance of meal breaks

Meal breaks are about more than nourishment. They are one of the few times during a work day when you have the opportunity to turn off your computer screen, defer phone calls, and focus on yourself. It’s a time to step away and push reset — not to catch up on emails or review meeting materials. Doing so can benefit both you and your company in more ways than one.

Mindful eating

Mindful eating is the awareness you have in the moment you are partaking in a meal. This may include how different foods make you feel, how the taste or smell impacts you, or how your hunger levels change throughout a meal. That awareness is more difficult to attain if you’re simultaneously typing away, researching new ideas or listening to voicemails. Taking time to eat away from your work environment encourages more mindful eating and can even help you make better choices.

Did You Know?Did you know
A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals who were distracted during a meal ate more than those who were not.

Increased engagement

Taking time to push pause on your goals and transition to rest time doesn’t just benefit you; it helps your company, too. A study published in the journal Cognition showed that performance tends to decline over the course of a task. One way to counteract this is by taking breaks. By pressing pause a few times throughout the day, including at lunch, you will actually have an easier time remaining committed to — and engaged in — a task.

Perks of eating lunch together at work

It seems clear that the benefits of communal meals go beyond firefighters into the corporate world. While you may be tempted to eat at your desk and catch up on your work or even your social media scrolling, there are good reasons to hang out at the group table:

  1. You get to take a break and relax. Of course, you can do this on your own, but you will take a more fruitful break away from your desk with no email notifications pinging and no desk phones ringing. You do better work when you focus fully on your tasks, not when trying to straddle working and eating at once. Plus, if you feel like you have to eat at your desk, you will build up resentment that can carry over into the rest of your day, dragging down your performance.
  2. You’ll build social relationships. If you only talk to your co-workers about work, you don’t get to know them. Lunchtime is the perfect opportunity to chitchat about families, hobbies and interests. It is also the best time to learn what your co-workers know about office politics, personalities, and so on.
  3. Social interaction brings the team closer together. Personal connections make working together not only more pleasant, but also easier and more productive. This is one of the reasons that some companies provide free or subsidized food to employees. Some companies go the healthy route, while others offer what the workers prefer, healthy or otherwise.
  4. It’s a great networking opportunity. Get to know the finance analyst, for instance, or be there when the boss drops by the lunch table. Practice your elevator speech on the intern if you must, but stick to non-work topics for the most part.

Free meals as a return-to-office perk

Prior to the pandemic, giants like Google provided employees meals from the famous Google buffet. Other tech companies like Asana boasted similar perks, such as three nutritionally balanced meals per day available at the office. With rising costs and employees’ increased interest in remote work, however, many companies have modified or eliminated these benefits. Others are offering them for the first time.

Reduced financial strain for employees

A January 2022 PYMNTS Connected Economy report found that 51 percent of employees work in hybrid roles, while 35 percent go into the office every day. 

Eager to get more employees back in the office, Google reinstated some of the perks workers received prior to COVID-19, such as free massages, transit and food. The effort to provide onsite meals is one strategy more employers are using to reduce the impact of adapting to a new routine.

In a recent survey from corporate catering company ezCater, 81 percent of leaders said that offering free meals and snacks was the best incentive to bring people into the office, with seven out of 10 employees indicating that free meals made them more likely to return to onsite work.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Twenty-nine percent of employees say they enjoy their work more if their employer offers free lunch, according to ezCater findings.

If employees live relatively close to the office, free meals and snacks can help counteract the increased cost of gas and public transportation necessary to get to the office. By providing meals onsite, employers can eliminate the time employees must spend preparing meals at home. They can also decrease an employee’s need to leave the office and spend even more on gas and restaurant meals.

Increased employee retention

Catrin Lewis, head of global engagement and internal communications at Reward Gateway, pointed out that a sponsored lunch or breakfast will find its way onto social media and provide a nice boost to the company image. Focus on a theme and use the meal to encourage a volunteer endeavor (which means even more team-building and bonding opportunities for the staff) or as a time to explain and absorb new policy changes or company news.

The ezCater study also showed that employees are 64 percent more likely to consider a new employer if free meals are offered. In a competitive recruiting environment, free meals can make a difference. 

Although Google and other companies offering complimentary meals may not require employees to eat together or take a break to eat, collaboration guru Tammy Erickson noted the tremendous benefits of enhanced collaboration, including connecting previously unrelated ideas and co-creating products, services and experiences. Shared meals and other forms of employee engagement contribute to a collaborative environment.

If your business can’t offer free meals regularly, schedule them around times of high stress, such as your busiest sales week.

The impact of workplace meals

The way we work — and the way we view work — has changed drastically in the last few years, but the benefits of sharing a meal with colleagues remain strong. Encouraging collaboration with complimentary on-site meals can increase productivity while simultaneously reducing the personal time and costs associated with heading back to the office. When you consider today’s competition for talent and employees’ hesitancy to return to work, the opportunity to enjoy a meal together may have a bigger impact than ever before.

Additional reporting by Adam Uzialko.

Casey Conway headshot
Casey Conway, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Casey Conway is an HR expert and communications consultant specializing in employee experience and internal company communications. Casey brings experience training leaders on how to develop and administer employee recognition programs designed to improve employee morale and engagement. She has also helped develop and lead company-wide wellness initiatives that provide employees with the resources to care for their physical and mental health. In addition to her experience as a business consultant, Casey has more than 15 years of experience as an HR technology writer. In that time, she has covered tools like HR software, as well as outsourcing options like Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs).
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