Articles

Free Food at Work Can Make a Difference. But Not As Much As You Think.

by . November 6th, 2015

Taco Tuesdays, Pizza Fridays, and free meals at work prepped by master chefs are no longer such crazy ideas for many businesses. But while the benefits are real, there are better things worth looking into.

Google is rumored to have a “150 feet” rule where no worker is further from that distance from snackage. Facebook and Twitter likewise provide meals prepped by vetted company chefs.  Smaller but still well-known names such as Moz, apartmentlist.com, shopkeep.com, and OverIt have such perks as unlimited salad bars, free donuts and burritos, and free beer on tap.

Other firms of more modest means, or at least more modest financial officers, follow suit with less extravagant versions of these tech giants’ policies. In today’s highly competitive hiring and retention landscape, free food, like the foosball table, has become a weapon to win employee hearts and minds.


But do these practices really work?


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Google in particular has become notorious for its disloyal employees, and Twitter has suffered a mass brain drain earlier this year.

Of course, the examples cited are some of the top tech firms out there, and motivations at that level of performance do not necessarily directly apply to most small business.

Grocery-delivery service Peapod recently released a survey finding that companies that provide free food have happier employees compared with those who have to pay for their own.

A survey of 1,000 American full-time office workers found that while 6%, of full-time employees are “extremely” or “very” happy with their current job, that number jumps to 67% among those who have access to free food. Only 16% of the employees surveyed said they had free food at work.

Overit employee Alison Krawczyk says this about Overit’s “Pizza Fridays”:

“Although this may sound like a simple idea, compared with start-ups who offer retreats to faraway places, this treat is not just about food. It gives us a chance for all of the different departments to come together, socialize and celebrate the end of the week.

At a small company with lots of work to do, we spend most of our lunches at our desks. Pizza Fridays allow everyone to take a break away from the screens, and connect over something good to eat.”

There are other possible benefits apart from increased employee happiness. Themed food events in particular, are a popular way to fill out company blogs and create mini media events. Take this example from Goodbye Crutches, a small scooter rental company. Check their video and skip to 2:00 to see what we’re talking about:

In a 2014 Forbes interview Goodbye Crutches owner Tom Schwab says:

“For a 5 minute picture and a 15 minute lunch, it’s got the best ROI of
anything we do. It is a great team building exercise that’s affordable, evergreen and easy. Our lunches are great content for social media… and it helps us build relationships with both vendors and customers.”

He adds:

“These lunches are also a good recruiting tool for the company. Those that like the culture are drawn to us.”

Another benefit of free food policies is that employees who are experiencing a rough patch financially may be able to get by on the food the employer provides. This is especially true for companies operating in places where lower salaries and high costs of living make employees particularly sensitive to even a slight shock in their income.


Can you have your cake and eat it too?


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Other business owners and managers however, are skeptical about the whole trend. Qualtrics owner Ryan Smith passionately argued against the free food trend in a recent piece posted on Fortune.com. He cited a Qualtrics study on millennials in the workplace, where respondents ranked “free food” as one of the least important elements of company culture.

Smith posits that any good that comes out of free food is fleeting and fails to address the root causes of most employee issues. He instead suggests business owners and managers focus on helping employees grow, laying the ground for a dynamic work culture, and having managers that can help those things happen.

To be clear, Ryan Smith doesn’t deny that there might be some benefit to free food. It’s just that among millennials surveyed, it’s not seen as very important compared to other major things that affect company culture.

Another concern with free food is the idea it can expose employees to increased risks of obesity and malnutrition if policies are not implemented with caution. Google, perhaps the thought leader when it comes to all things related to free food at work, tries to allay these concerns among its employees by encouraging healthy eating and exercise. Generally speaking though, companies with free food perks do not otherwise compel employees to make healthy choices.


Conclusion


Free food in the workplace can be a good thing, and can be a critical factor in retaining employees — provided all other things are equal. If you want to improve culture and retention, there are other things you could do that would have a bigger impact.

The problem is that most other actions that positively affect work culture are very involved, with the benefits not necessarily palpable months, if not years after policies are rolled out. Training managers how to lead instead of merely oversee and attempting to implement a dynamic culture are not easy things to do by any metric.

To complicate matters, every workplace is different. Every enterprise exists in a different time, place, and culture, each existing with a variably revolving door of diverse personalities.

No single approach to long-term improvement of work culture is feasible for all situations. On the other hand it’s clear — and just plain common sense — that compared to a free food policy, enterprises stand to benefit a lot more by going for long-term strategies that affect root causes of high employee turnover and dissatisfaction.

The appeal of free food policies is that they are relatively easy to implement, and positive changes are likely to be had in short order. And these benefits, while not always long-lasting or crucial, are in fact real.

In the end, having free food for employees is really just the icing on the cake. If the actual the cake itself isn’t any good, it’s doubtful even the best icing could save it.

photo credits: Marmalade Pantry @ Stables – Pan-Seared Haloumi via photopin (license)Pig Ate My Pizza via photopin (license)Duchesse de Bourgogne / south route & north route via photopin (license) Festivalet craft fair (December 2009) via photopin (license)

 What do you feel about free food in the workplace?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.

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