Food futures: eating together at work

As part of our ongoing work looking at the future of food and eating together, we asked a group of UCL Master's students to examine questions of food and eating together in a different way. They came up with an original idea for visualising different workplace eating options, which we will be using as part of the planning for our move to new premises at the end of 2016.

This is a guest blog by UCL students Rosa Grossman, Tiffany Lee, Sakti Ramadhan and Hilary Prosser.

Last winter, Nesta encouraged our group of students in UCL's Design Anthropology Master's programme, to think about the futures of food. We worked to think about the repeatedly explored world of eating and well-being from an “alternative” perspective.

After our initial process of eliminating related topics, we narrowed it down to the current lunchtime eating behaviour of working individuals and speculating on the future possibilities. We started with sample groups of working professionals (with an age range of 20-60) from Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, to gather similar habits from contrasting cultures. Through individual interviews and group observations, we focused on recurring patterns related to environment, food, time availability, sociality and local cultural aspects.

Our findings and conclusions revealed:

  • the majority of our interviewees preferred eating together than alone, but would prefer to be able to do it in a pleasant and comfortable environment
  • Our interviewees generally do not want to share their food because it would imply compromising their personal food preferences
  • The employees’ sympathy or antipathy for the company culture affects the level of socialising at lunch which in turn also affects the attitude and mental wellbeing of an employee.

Daniel Miller, an anthropologist, introduced us to the term ‘scalable sociality’ in 2016, which is the idea that the larger the party, the less individual preferences would weigh in. As this was prominent in the lunchtime behaviours we studied, we used this as our key concept in assembling our analysis. We designed a board named the “Cartogram of Commensality” to visualize and stimulate out-of-the-box thinking for the possible future of workplace lunches.

The “Cartogram of Commensality” is made up of three components - islands, vessels and companies.

The islands represent typical dining choices around a workplace and are materialized as ‘moods’:

  • Eden Island: represents the ideal option for a meal together; often mentioned as verdant, yet offering sufficient shelter. It is further away and could be more expensive, but creates a comfortable environment for diners to indulge their food with natural sounds and scents.
  • Quick ‘n’ Cool Cay: clean, pleasant, relatively inexpensive and reasonably close to the workplace.
  • Picnic Islet: outdoor space with limited seating, but abundant greenery and relatively close to the workplace where takeaway can be eaten with a group.
  • Sardine Can Islet: closest yet most unpleasant choice because of its crowded and compact environment. Affordable prices and close proximity make it a winner when restricted on time.

The boats represent the different social configurations:

  • The Cruiser: accommodates the whole company; allows maximum sociality and minimum individual choice.
  • The Yacht: accommodates a large group of people; achieves a good level of sociality and modest amount of options.
  • The Dinghy: accommodates 2-4 people; achieves a variety of levels in individual choice and sociality.
  • The Coracle: accommodates a single person; allows minimum sociality yet maximum autonomy.

The companies represent three fictitious companies that encompass general characteristics we identified in our research:

  • Company Turquoise: large; fixed lunch hours and a company canteen makes up for the distant dining options and propels maximum sociality.
  • Company Sapphire: medium; flexible lunch times and a common dining area encourages encourage sociality. Typically, people are given the choice of eating in or dining out.
  • Company Azure: small; irregular individual lunch breaks are consequences of the time-pressured culture and environment with no common dining facility.

The purpose of the “Cartogram of Commensality” is to help companies and individuals illustrate the current situations and think about potential ideas to modify workplace lunches for the future according to the constant changes in the social norm. It promotes maximum creativity without the risks.

 Some examples of scenarios:

  • Company Azure’s employees are stressed, without proper space and time to relax. Possible ways to improve this condition include increasing the company’s internal eating space, but also making an effort to create group events and outings or keeping to the culture, have options delivered in.


  • Company Turquoise focuses on the Canteen Pier, but with younger and newer generations perhaps being bored and uninspired by the canteen offerings, the company or individuals can organize and promote frequent company outings to further “islands” and possibly sharing a common space with Company Sapphire where the two companies meet.


  • Company Sapphire is more lenient, yet with deadline crunches and busy schedules, they cannot always utilize the freedom given. What if they proposed a speedier delivery service with a “jet ski” or creating a mobile option such as a food truck or “boat” in this case. This could become an advancement opportunity for all participants.

The possibilities are infinite, an entirely underwater system creating shortcuts to island could be constructed, or “moving” islands and re-arranging the locations of workplaces versus dining options, or mutating (stacking) smaller vessels to create larger vessels, so forth. By physically seeing the elements move around the board, the most unexpected prospects can be imagined and implemented. We encourage companies and individuals to be creative.

If you would like to know more about the project or the Cartogram, please get in touch.


Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Director of Innovation Policy and Futures

Louise was Director of Innovation Policy and Futures within the Policy and Research team. She managed Nesta's work on innovation policy and technology futures. She previously worked on…

View profile