Can introducing team lunches improve productivity? There is some evidence that it can, so we experimented with our Policy and Research team to see if we could encourage more eating together at lunchtimes.
What happens during lunchtime at your office? Does the floor empty, as everyone heads for the local caff? Is everyone hunched over their desks with packed lunches or M&S sandwiches? Do you generally eat with others or by yourself? Do you read, or Facebook, or email throughout lunch?
As part of my work on the future of eating together, I wanted to experiment with our own Policy and Research team at Nesta, and see if some simple changes would encourage us to eat together more often. Although we are lucky enough to have both a kitchen and long tables for shared eating, they were being used sporadically, and mostly by a small knot of the younger office staff.
Many startups now place a premium on eating together as a team, and on providing good food facilities in their offices. Google is well known for this, but many other tech companies have followed suit. And the important role that lunches play at accelerators such as Y-Combinator, where talks are given and mentoring advice shared, has propagated this trend through many other startups too.
Is this just the latest business fad, then? Like expensive office chairs and Slack subscriptions, a signal that these companies are part of the Silicon Valley in-crowd?
There is some evidence that it can have a positive impact on your business. Research on firehouses in the United States suggested that eating meals together is associated with greater productivity and team dynamics. The informal interactions and conversations we have while eating can build better relationships and promote collaboration. But eating with others can potentially have adverse effects. We tend to eat more when we eat with friends, and what and how much other people eat can affect our own consumption.
The simple change that I made was to put a weekly invitation in everyone's diary to have lunch together on a Wednesday. Everyone could bring their own lunch, or buy it as normal , but on those days we would make an effort to sit down together at the benches and eat as a group. Once a month we would make more effort and bring food to share with each other 'potluck' style. This could be homemade dishes, but more often was a spread of good cheese, ham and bread. Those require a bit more effort and planning - especially when we have themed them. But they are definitely the most social ones, with the biggest attendance, and there is an added camaraderie from preparing the dishes together on the day. A short survey before and 5 months after recorded people’s eating preferences.
Numbers eating at their desk on the previous day went down from 37% to 25%. Those who prefer to eat with others either mostly or all the time went from 52% to 65%. Those who ate with someone else at Nesta on the previous day went from 44% to 65%. Those who ate alone from 44% to 30%. This was a small team, and a very basic survey, so it's hard to draw good conclusions from the data.
The effects I have noticed from our simple change are that use of the benches has become a more common choice on all days of the week. There is now an assumption that if others in the team are sat down there, you can join them without permission or intrusion. It has also inspired other teams to start their own team lunches (although one team was doing this before we started as well).
At the same time as experimenting with our own team, we also commissioned a team of UCL Masters students, as part of a project in the Anthropology and Design course, to look at eating together in the workplace, and take a different approach to examining the topic. You can read more about this project in their blog post.
It's not for everyone. For some, lunchtime is an opportunity to have some quiet time alone, to go for a walk or, still, to catchup on work. But I think we have subtly shifted what normal looks like, and the team links are benefiting as a result. Our next challenge is to plan ways to continue the culture as we move to our new offices at the end of the year.