Is free food at work a perk or a problem?

Author: 
Paul Nolan

At the height of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, much was written about the five-star-worthy cafeterias that high-tech companies created, offering free meals and elaborate snacks to keep their employees engaged and maybe even working extra hours.

While the dot-com bubble burst, food as a perk persists. A recent New York Times article states, free food in the workplace “is almost obligatory, as businesses go to extraordinary lengths to provide food without charge, or at a sharp discount. The offerings have grown in size, scope and specificity — some tailored to a company’s mission, others unwittingly reflective of it and still others that seem oddly random.”

A perk for who?

Does free food in the  workplace make a difference in employee satisfaction, happiness or engagement? It’s difficult to make a direct correlation between free food and employee performance, says Sales & Marketing Management columnist and behavioral science aficionado Tim Houlihan. Providing food at no or low cost makes it easier for employees to arrive early or stay late, but is that a benefit for the employee or the employer?

“There is the possibility that the company café could be silently advocating an imbalance between work and life — especially if the cafeteria remains open after business hours,” he says. “This can make it all too easy to work late and eat at the office, sending a message to those who are ambitious, ‘Stay at work a while longer and we’ll feed you.’ ”

Another issue that companies face when instituting free food is the potential for increased caloric intake for their employees. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that free food offerings at work add an average of 1,300 calories to each employee’s diet each week. Companies that offer food perks can help employees make healthier food choices by featuring salads, but soda, cookies and other desserts invariably make it into most cafeterias.

Middle ground

There are ways to meaningfully implement the perk, but not every day, says Houlihan. This can be accomplished in several ways and testing the concept in a pilot mode can help determine how powerful the perk might be.

Rather than building out a full kitchen, start with scrip or corporate bucks to be used at local restaurants or food trucks. Allocate a small amount on a weekly or monthly basis and measure the usage of that scrip when you settle up with the restaurant or caterer.

Or, allow employees to bring receipts to petty cash one day each week — say Thursday — and see how many people use it. The pilot phase can be used to see how employees use (or abuse) the offer.

Edible office extras

  • At Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in Vermont, in addition to three free pints of ice cream daily, employees have an on-site gym to work off what they have come to call the “Ben 10.”
  • The dating app Hinge gives nutritious snacks like yogurt and nuts to workers in its New York office, and also provides workers $200 a month to spend on dates.
  • Big Ass Fans, a fan manufacturer, has a beer refrigerator that is unlocked if the day’s sales goals have been met.
  • Fidelity prices healthy foods in its cafeteria at a fraction of the price of less-healthy choices.