As workdays seem to get longer and longer, some companies are looking to a larger variety of perks to keep their employees, well, perky.
In order to compete for talent, and also retain employees, companies have always provided certain benefits for those who work for them. These range from the absolutely essential – health, dental and vision insurance – to the somewhat less expected, such as animal health insurance, free oil changes and on-call massage therapists.
Several years ago Google announced that its benefits continued beyond the grave, when they revealed that if an employee dies while still working at Google, the deceased’s spouse will continue to receive 50-percent of that salary for 10 years. Children of the deceased will receive $1000 a month until the age of 19 or 23 – depending on student status.
But one very simple solution seems to do wonders for employee satisfaction around the world by improving morale, productivity and creating camaraderie: free food.
Not only are the endless snacks in a well-stocked kitchen hugely appreciated by employees, but time and time again, surveys find that free lunches top the list of favorite benefits.
Recent studies suggest that workers in the United States and around the world are taking shorter lunch breaks – and in many cases – aren’t even getting up from their desks to eat. A 2014 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that employed parents between the ages of 25 and 54 spend on average just one hour of their day eating and drinking. Which means just 20 minutes per meal, and that doesn’t include any time for snacks. Research done by Right Management found that only one in five people get away from their desks during the all-important lunch break.
NPR’s Here and Now conducted an interview Kimberly Elsbach, a professor at University of California, Davis Graduate School of Management, last March, in which she explained the importance of taking a full lunch.
“There’s just this demand to be forever available, so people are reluctant to leave their desk in case they miss something. And so people are eating at their desk — if they’re eating at all — and are just there for longer periods of time,” Professor Elsbach said.
Companies with canteens are the lucky ones – although horror stories about office food have been known to rival those about school lunches — but large cafeterias on some campuses have been replaced by smaller restaurants, offering more variety à la Google and Pixar.
Hallmark Cards, based out of Kansas City, has had a company cafeteria for just shy of a century, while Cisco Systems has been offering free food as a perk since the mid-1990s, when it hired Bon Appétit Management, a food-service group that focuses on the environmentally sustainable.
But not all companies can afford seven different restaurants for their employees or dining halls that fit 600. Thankfully with the proliferation of startups worldwide, comes the proliferation of startups trying to solve this problem.
ZeroCater, a startup based in San Francisco, partners with restaurants, catering companies and food trucks to cater lunches, dinners, breakfasts for different companies in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Arram Sabeti, the founder of ZeroCater, came up with the idea after creating a spreadsheet to keep track of everyone’s dietary issues and preferences for lunch orders when he was working as an office manager.
“He realized it was a problem affecting anyone who organized catering for a company,” explained Kayla Rockwell, ZeroCater’s marketing manager. A ZeroCater customer service coordinator keeps track of dietary issues and preferences for companies’ future meals and using a feedback system, companies rate their catered lunches and the
“We serve all of our meals family style,” explained Ms. Rockwell. “The idea is that people serve themselves food, eat together and eat lunch. Connecting over food is such an old tradition, it’s only natural that it has a place in the workplace. It gives people another way to relate to one another.”
But it also is hugely advantageous to productivity, she explained, as some companies see catered meals translating to an extra 40 minutes of employee time. Some companies, for instance, have been using breakfast as a productivity tool.
“It might be a day of the week when employees are slow rolling into work. Some companies have a breakfast that morning, and then the employees are incentivized to get in early,” Ms. Rockwell explained, and dinners can also be used to encourage employees to stay a little later.
“Usually, that dinnertime meal isn’t slated until around 6:30, so lots of employees stay and work that extra hour or so in order to get fed,” she said.
Catering startups continue to pop up and expand, and companies continue to stock fridges and employees’ stomachs with nutritious snacks and lunches. So whether you’re looking into getting lunch for your team everyday, plan one weekly meal together, or start a Friday donut tradition, don’t be fooled by the power of food.
In the words of Franz Kafka, “So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.”