Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 21;   May 22, 2002: Food for Thought

Food for Thought

by

Most companies have employee cafeterias, with the usual not-much-better-than-high-school food service. By upgrading — and subsidizing — food service, these companies can reduce turnover and improve productivity dramatically.

Joanne grabbed a tray and plasticware and headed for the food stations. Suddenly unsure, she halted, thinking, "Burger and fries? No, never. Hot entrée — let's see, lasagna, or turkey with dressing. Yuck. Looks like the salad bar again. Boring. But at least I won't be committing suicide by arterial plaque."

An appealing meal

An appealing and healthful lunch. Think about how different your day — and your workplace — would be if we had appealing and nutritious lunches even once a week.

The menu in Joanne's company cafeteria wasn't actively bad — but the atmosphere was Spartan, there wasn't much choice, the food wasn't particularly healthy, and the rotation was terribly repetitive. She could never imagine, for example, going home to Larry and talking about lunch. It was even less likely that she would ever be torn between two choices she really liked. Lunch had become humdrum. Maybe that's why so many people went out for food.

When a company decides that its food service must pay its own way, or at least not lose too much money, it's choosing to encourage people to go elsewhere for lunch. What happens next depends on the availability of alternatives. If restaurants are close by, people are likely to choose them over a barely-good-enough internal food service. And when they make that choice — or even if they wish they could — the company can be a loser. Here's how.

When we compel the
company food service
to pay its own way,
we're telling people
to go out to lunch
Let's suppose that the company employs large numbers of skilled knowledge workers. They work with their brains — scientists, researchers, engineers, programmers, artists, attorneys, accountants, executives, health care professionals, designers, and many others. Generally, people in these categories are paid well, and they're hard to replace.

Company policies that increase productivity, improve retention, or enhance morale can therefore be good investments. If the in-house food service is truly outstanding, and subsidized (where legally possible), here's what happens:

People eat in
Duh — of course they eat in. And when they do, the time they save by not going out — usually a half hour, at least — can become work time.
People consume less alcohol
Some people who lunch out order alcoholic drinks, and some return with fuzzy brains. For knowledge workers, it's much better if they stay in.
People network more
Eating in-house, people can spend more time with a greater variety of people from all over the facility. This builds networks and relationships, and smoothes cross-functional collaborations.
People are happier
An outstanding menu and atmosphere make people feel valued, which helps them build their self-esteem. This strengthens loyalty to the company, improving retention. See "Retention," Point Lookout for February 7, 2007, for more.

How much is this worth? A good rule of thumb is one-half hour per day per employee. That covers the cost of lost time, increased turnover, impairment, low self-esteem, and so on. If the average fully loaded payroll is $25 per hour ($80 is more realistic for knowledge workers), subsidizing the food service at a level of even $10 per employee per day is still a win.

For a company with many knowledge workers, trading food for thought is a fair exchange. Go to top Top  Next issue: At the Sound of the Tone, Hang Up  Next Issue

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