How Free Lunches Can Improve Your Company's Culture

Michael Dean
How Free Lunches Can Improve Your Company's Culture

There are many aspects of life in Denmark that I wish we could emulate in the UK and US (I’m a Brit who’s lived in the US and now lives in Copenhagen). One of the simplest that I lament the most, is how employees in Danish offices eat lunch together. (Along with free higher-education, proper cycle lanes and good maternity/paternity leave.)

By eating lunch together I don’t mean cliques frequenting local cafes or pubs, I mean whole offices or entire companies dining together on high-quality meals.

In some workplaces this practice is more lavish than others: Advertising agencies and banks here will employ chefs for their own kitchens, whereas smaller businesses will have catering companies bring in their meals. Regardless, the effect eating together has on a company’s cultures is profound – and something I believe is drastically missing in many workplaces.

The cost of not offering free lunches

When you see the lengths businesses go to in order to kick-start cross-departmental collaboration, or the need for “skip-level meetings” for executives to talk to frontline employees, it’s hard not to get excited about the fact they could have all these initiatives taking place in an event that happens naturally every day – rather than through time-consuming meetings, presentations and emails.

Over lunch colleagues build stronger friendships and camaraderie – and the only spaghetti and marshmallows in sight will be that which you’re potentially eating.

Stop playing with this stuff and start eating some of it. [Image from Flickr]

Then there are the more obvious health benefits: With the time constraints of most workers’ lunch breaks, dashing to a food truck or drive-through means we’re often eating unhealthy food. But it’s now common knowledge that healthier employees cost a business less through fewer sick days, higher productivity and lower health insurance costs.

This is potentially the best chance your company has to help its employees enjoy a healthier diet. And don’t forget, in many countries (the US being one example) the cost of employee meals can be entirely tax deductible!

A more innovative culture through serendipity

Although it’s more common here than in many countries, Denmark is of course not the only place where businesses provide their employees with lunch.

In an interview with The Independent Google’s UK managing director, Dan Cobley, explained the importance of the “serendipitous interactions” that happen while their employees (Googlers) stand in line for lunch, “we know people will chat while they’re waiting. Chats become ideas, and ideas become projects.”

Along with its open plan offices that include “break out” areas, lunches at Google are part of the company’s efforts to have employees from different disciplines meet – causing different perspectives to collide and create ideas that weren’t thought up within teams of like minded people.

Three tips for getting company lunches right

Whether putting food on the table is a big undertaking or not will depend on the size of your office and where you’re located, but hopefully these three steps will make your company launches a measurable success:

Food quality is everything

You’ll not get any benefits from company lunches if scrimping on the cost of food means the meals aren’t enjoyable and nutritious. There’s nothing more crucial than making sure the food is great.

Kitchen or caterer?

In my experience, once you get to more than 100 people in your office you should definitely consider using your own kitchen and hiring a chef. Before then, enquire about local catering services. In some places this will be more common and better priced than others. Either way, it should be a fairly quick calculation to see which option is better value.

As for where to eat, a good solution is to create a multi-purpose space that can be used as a lunch area and a space for events. The Citrix office in Copenhagen [pictured above] does this very well, with room for 100 diners each lunchtime and every member of staff for their all-hands meeting.

Something for everyone

Company lunches will also fail if they’re not eaten by everyone. If you’re providing the right food this shouldn’t be a problem, but the moment managers stop participating or employees start routinely missing your lunches then the benefits begin to erode.

Having to rigorously enforce a lunch policy is also damaging. So again, the only way to ensure yours succeeds is by providing food that’s too good to turn down. Bon appetit.

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