My friend and I used to have a tradition of meeting every morning near the blender to make our avocado smoothies. As we watched the fine particles of avocado become one with the yogurt, honey, and ice, we’d chat over the loud whir of the motor and catch up on anything we might have missed. The blender became our water-cooler-equivalent before the day’s tasks and meetings took hold. We’d return to the kitchen about 10 times a day to fill our cups with seltzer (splash of cran) and trove the stainless steel tables for leftover client meeting goodies. We took the cold brew coffee, hummus packs, and chocolate milk for granted and considered these snacks part of our compensation for working long hours. In fact, when the avocados were occasionally out of stock, employees would become visibly upset over the empty basket and demand to know when the avocados would be restocked! I couldn’t help but think the whole thing was humorous, how had we become so worked up over this FREE little fruit?
But maybe the avocado incident is indicative of a larger occurrence in society: we’ve become so accustomed to food perks being part of the work environment that we’ve forgotten that it wasn’t always that way.
The average American will spend 90,000 hours of their lives at work. For context, most people will spend around 229,961 hours sleeping and 28,300 online. The bottom line is a lot of our waking lives are spent at our desks, around our coworkers, and eating our meals in the office.
So what exactly is the employee getting from these food perks besides daily calories? We talked to a few individuals with major food benefits to find out.
First and foremost, these individuals mentioned a greater sense of camaraderie with their fellow employees over bread broken and catered lunches consumed. Eating together “encourages my coworkers and me to sit together and talk during our lunch instead of going off separately and staring at our phones. It helps to strengthen our relationships,” said Delaney Keating an account manager at Gusto in Denver.
Additionally, free food helps us to focus on our to-dos instead of having to leave the office to seek out food and spend money. All the while we are saving the company time by not leaving the office for lunch. Keating also said, “I save a lot of money as a result and I’m able to stay longer at work because I don’t need to leave to get food.” Eating food with our coworkers fosters a community of inclusion and equality. According to Alice Julier’s book Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality, it “has the potential to shift people’s perspectives, making individuals more likely to view others as equals” which is essential to building strong, diverse teams in the workplace.
However, the employee isn’t the only one benefiting from free lunch, there are some major advantages for the employer who offers free or discounted food. Of course, free food is a great selling point when recruiting new talent and will aid in employees wanting to stay at the company for longer. Because, once you’ve had the benefit of daily catered lunches, can you really go back to brown bagging it?
Former general manager of the Twitter Cafeteria, Amelia Ekus was interviewed by the New York Times and cited another important perk for employers: “Compared with other benefits, it’s a small investment, “and the return on the investment is huge,” she said. “You reduce turnover because you have happier employees. It’s how you stay competitive for a certain sector of companies.”
It takes a simple exercise in cost-benefit analysis to deduce that an employee’s time per week running out to get lunch is worth way more than the comparatively small cost of buying them lunch. Another former colleague of mine who works in San Francisco told me that lots of companies in that area “offer these sort of conveniences to stay competitive. But, it also makes coming in early and taking lunch meetings more normal.”
We’d be remiss not to address the negatives to the seemingly innocent perk. Consider for instance local food vendors surrounding a hub of tech companies offering the free food perk. The on-campus cafeterias detract from local economies when employees don’t spend money at the surrounding businesses. Some local governments are making laws banning the creation of new on-campus cafeterias to help quell the issue. However, companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook and their extravagant cafeterias will be grandfathered in.
Some speculate that free food is a flashy benefit that could act as a substitute for benefits like vacation time, work-life balance, robust health insurance, and other perks. It should go without saying that free lunch should not be offered at the expense of an employee’s health or time off. All we’re saying is free lunch is only worth it if we can have our salad bar and eat it too.
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