This article is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.
A small group of my colleagues make time to eat together almost every day. Whether it's a bag lunch or a bought lunch, one of them will rally the others to gather in the kitchen when it seems the majority of them are free. It definitely helps that they're on the same team when it comes down to coordination, but their consistency has emboldened others from other departments to periodically leave their desks and eat in a communal setting--and interestingly, the degree of commensality in our office setting seems directly related the overall health of our workplace. When morale is high, the kitchen is full both in terms of people and supplies. The presence of people requires an organizational response in providing snacks and supplies--and in the absence of supplies, people who are committed to lunch will bring their own supplies as warranted. The same is also true in reverse: when morale is low, the kitchen is a despondent space. Although I would stop short at calling this a hard and fast rule, at a time when much attention is being engagement and productivity, the degree of workplace lunches offer an unofficial gauge of employee satisfaction.
Financial supervillain Gordon Gekko once proclaimed, "Lunch is for wimps." Sure, he's a fictional 80s character but this line is representative of the general deprioritization of the midday meal. Industry changes everything it touches: time
, and yes, lunch. An often cited survey
reports that 81% of Americans are not pausing for a regular lunch hour. Part of this has been attributed to the economic downturn in 2008: People were bringing lunch from home to save money and companies cut back on staff lunches and client meals for the same reason. With an increased emphasis on doing more with less, people grew concerned with appearing not busy, and a key means of appearing busy is being present at your desk. (It goes without saying that this is hardly a reliable marker of productivity, but visibility matters.) But even before that, the decline in lunch was simply due to the fact that work itself had changed. Lunch was important when manufacturing and agricultural labor necessitated a break to rest and recuperate, but as white collar labor has risen and "busy-ness" has become a marker of productivity, taking time to eat away from your desk has become less of a priority. State laws may require that employers provide time for a lunch break, but a quick Google search will tell you that many office workers seem inclined to skip lunch entirely even as they recognize that this isn't always the healthiest behavioral option. Additionally the work day itself is no longer a traditional 9-to-5. With the rise of work-from-home and flexible schedules, lunch may fall to the wayside as people prioritize their time differently.
But eating together is an important aspect of belonging to a social group. We mark many significant events with a meal because it symbolizes trust and dependence and connectivity. The American celebration of Thanksgiving is the epitome of eating together. Thanksgiving collects people as it brings together neighbors and friends and/or forces family to undertake sometimes significant travel to gather in a single place based on the depth of the social ties they have with one another. In fact, people go out of their way to include those who may not have social groups with whom they can observe the day because of the importance we place on affirming belonging on this particular day. Thanksgiving is touted as a day of reflection, but at its core it is a means of assessing the strength of one's support network.
Food has been used in the workplace to connect people in similar ways. The archaeological record has substantial evidence of "work feasts” where food and drink were offered to attract labor. Our present day version of this is the company holiday party, or the summer picnic, or that occasional happy hour. These events are essentially periodic rewards for service. The focus at these events is often on beverages because we hold the notion that eating together is a serious act that enhances our connection to one another. Families and friends dine together whereas coworkers often do not. In these moments where colleagues may be forced together for a few hours for the sake of work politics, the objective is sometimes to only stay as long as you need to. When food is introduced as a factor, it highlights the quality of the exchange; in a large workplace setting no one wants to be the first to “eat and run.” A quick drink--whether or not it's alcoholic--offers the opportunity to be socially present with an easy avenue for an exit when desired.
This dynamic starts to shift when you start to look at teams, however. Given the amount of time people spend at work, they are more likely to develop closer relationships with team members--people who are assigned the same project or work within the same department--than with with other colleagues. Among these smaller groups, people may know details about each other's families, homes, neighborhoods, and general likes and dislikes. It is easier for these smaller groups to feel like a family even though they are clearly not. These groups can exert peer pressure on each other to participate. Among these groups, self-organized group meal periods can be indicative of the strength of the team in general.
Firehouses are a great example of this. Though they're not an office setting, firehouses foster a close team experience where it is critical that team members are highly cooperative. One means of achieving this is through the planned meal activity in the firehouse. Many workplaces have kitchens, with or without tables and chairs, where employees can add the final touches to their meals using a toaster or a microwave or condiments stored in a refrigerator. Firehouses are distinct in that they have a full kitchen and members are engaged in complete meal prep and consumption together. In one study
81% of firefighters sampled reported that everyone in the firehouse is a part of the group meals. From an ethnographic perspective, the kitchen is highly regarded by firefighters as the focal point of the firehouse. It is where people tend to gather following alarm calls, and often served as the location where firefighters should monitor alarm calls, debrief after returning from calls, and otherwise relax and wait for their next emergency. In terms of actual food consumption, firefighters reported intentionally making time to eat with colleagues on shift, even if it meant having a second dinner or eating food prepared elsewhere with the group, as was the case with one senior firefighter who made an obvious attempt to eat his brown bag meals with the team and participate in clean up. The reason? There is a sense that the firehouse is an extended family. Commensality becomes an important means of fitting in. The data collected by this research group suggests a positive correlation between shared meals and job satisfaction.
It's true that firehouses are unique in that they are very insular. Firefighters may sleep at the jobsite. It becomes a self-contained, tightly knit community. But to a certain degree, office workplaces generate a sense of insularity as well. For example, employees may be bound by a NDA to protect business interests. And offices with multiple locations may find that each location has a sense of cohesiveness and culture that can be exclusionary to others. And certainly within specific office locations, team and department divisions can help support collegial bonding on a smaller level. In offices with cafeterias or lunchrooms, this space becomes an area where social ties are built and reaffirmed. The workplace lunchroom is a place where coworkers can meet and catch up, ideate, or blow off steam. They can also be places where workplace hierarchies are reinforced and cliques are made apparent.
In the survey
referenced above, when employees were asked if they regularly take a break for lunch, the responses were as follows:
- 19% Yes, almost always
- 39% Yes, but usually stay at my desk
- 14% Only from time to time
- 28% Seldom, if ever
Intrigued, I posed the same survey to my NYC office with the following results:
- 17% Yes, almost always
- 23% Yes, but usually stay at my desk
- 47% Only from time to time
- 13% Seldom, if ever
And then to the company overall (excluding NYC) with the following results:
- 3% Yes, almost always
- 42% Yes, but usually stay at my desk
- 46% Only from time to time
- 9% Seldom, if ever
Admittedly, my sample size is small, but the results do provide interesting anecdotal examples. The general trend in responses supports the idea of eating at your desk or minimizing lunch overall. Within my company, the groups who were more inclined to break for lunch were the creative (60% of responding creative team members) and strategy (60% of responding team members) teams. They were also the ones who were more likely to break for lunch as a group. It hardly seems surprising as these teams tend to be highly collaborative in general. Elsewhere the distribution was more measured.
In another office setting, an employee reported that his entire team generally makes time to eat lunch in the lunchroom together at the same time almost every day. The lunchtime gathering includes the VP, the director, the intern, and any guests for the department. They insist that everyone sit at the same table, and will eat elbow-to-elbow if needed. They work hard to maintain this lunchtime ritual and it is reflective of a general cohesiveness particular to that department. When groups like this stop meeting for lunch, it can be suggestive of a strain on the team, whether that is due to workload or personnel conflicts. As with any family, the need for a "break" from each other can be telling. How quickly this kind of conflict is resolved speaks to the strength of the connections on the team.
There are, of course, many factors that may be at play when it comes to determining whether people break for lunch and whether they eat with others when they do. For example, job function and team structure need to be accounted for. Project managers who are not solely dedicated to a specific client/project may be less inclined to do a social lunch as they tend to other tasks. Similarly if the department is understaffed, it may be difficult for an employee to devote time solely to eating, much less eating with others.
What lunch looks like in your organization matters. Whether or not people feel a connection to their fellow colleagues, and whether or not the office structure encourages this kind of socialization, speaks volumes about the workplace itself. Engaged employees will make an effort to connect with others. Engaged employees are more productive. Engaged employees stay. And it may all boil down to lunch.
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Dietler, M., & Herbich, I. (2001). Feasts and labor mobilization: Dissecting a fundamental economic practice. In M. Dietler & B. Hayden (Eds.), Feasts: Archaeological and ethnographic perspectives on food, politics, and power (pp. 240–264). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Kniffen, Kevin, Brian Wansink, Carol Devine, and Jeffery Sobal. (2015) Eating Together at the Firehouse: How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of Firefighters. Human Performance