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Lunch Is Served! Workplace Meals Improve Productivity

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

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

  • Employees who share communal lunches tend to have higher productivity and morale.
  • Like firefighters who cook and share meals in the firehouse, co-workers benefit from eating together.
  • Companies reap benefits from encouraging employees to eat together, and many provide free or subsidized meals and snacks

Your local fire department might provide some clues on how your company can improve productivity. A Cornell University study suggests employers may see a boost in productivity if they encourage their employees to eat meals together, similar to what occurs in many firehouses.

Researchers found that firefighters who eat meals together have 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 spreadshee, 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."

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

"Although the costs that organizations invest to support on-site 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.

The platoons who ate together most often got higher marks for their team performance, while the platoons that did not eat together got 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.

Perks of eating lunch together at work

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

  1. You get to take a break and relax. Of course, you can do this on your own, but you will take a better break away from your desk – no email notifications pinging, no desk phones ringing. Drake Baer elaborates on this in a Fast Company article: If you are constantly in "worker bee" mode, you are much more likely to get burned out. You do better work when you focus on work when working and disengage when not working, not when trying to straddle working and eating at once. 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 trade chitchat about families, hobbies and interests. It is also the best time to find out what they know that you want to know about office politics, personalities, etc.

  3. Social interaction brings the team closer together. Personal connections make working together not only more pleasant, but easier and more productive. This is certainly 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.

It appears that the company as a whole benefits from communal meals as well, which may be why giants like Google provide three meals a day and 24-hour snacks to their workforce. Granted, Google doesn’t require that employees eat together, or that they take a break from work to eat, but collaboration guru Tammy Erickson notes 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.

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

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