Food For Thought – The Office Cafeteria’s Key Role

By Khiv Singh No Comments
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“Science may never come up with a better office communication system than the coffee break.” – Earl Wilson

Admit it – you, just like the rest of us, have dreamt of working at Google – not because of the work content but driven by stories of their well-stocked and free cafeterias. Stories like this may mask the reality though. The Society for Human Resource Management reported last year that only as few as 18% of organizations had cafeterias – essentially the argument is one of the cost of having and running a cafeteria. Not having a cafeteria presents the hungry employee with a Hobson’s choice for lunch – either have a hurried bite at the desk or make an extended run out to the nearest restaurant. A Right Management survey a couple of years ago showed that as many as 81% of employees were not having a real break for lunch. The ill-effects in terms of stress and the long-term ramifications on the wellness of the employees are obvious.

The most obvious reason for an organization with the required scale to have a cafeteria is the time it saves for employees. HR Consulting firm Towers Watson conducted a survey among technology companies in the Silicon Valley in the US and reported that employees of firms with in-house cafeterias saved anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes at lunchtime. This additional time could easily translate into more productivity or at the very least, a shorter work day for the employee. A variety of surveys have shown that people are spending more time than ever before at work – why would you want to add an extra hour at lunch to the clock?

A convincing argument made for the workplace cafeteria lets us consider some features the organization can build into their design to maximize their utility. If the objective is to save time then it would make sense to locate the cafeteria conveniently – better to have a cafeteria close by to the largest part of the workforce than to have employees spending 15 minutes walking to and then back from lunch. The Software Technology Parks of India provide an excellent example with cafeterias common to several STP resident companies located strategically at various locations around their large campuses.

Dr. Pernille Stroebaek from the University of Copenhagen opined, “Coffee breaks have important social, and potentially monetary, value for organizations.” This is a less researched area but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests the importance. Research has shown that the brain is attuned to concentrating for no more than 90 minutes at a stretch and that the brain needs a regular supply of glucose to be able to keep processing. This suggests that short but sharp breaks for the employees are useful. To conveniently enable this, extending the reach of the cafeteria right into the workplace through portable snack bars and vending machines are all experiments that have been tried to good effect by organizations.

The other important aspect of the workplace cafeteria is as a place of informal collaboration and community building. Most cafeteria designs take this into consideration as they arrange grouped seating in varying configurations. Apart from making optimal use of the space available, the intention is also to help employees interact with each other over the meal. Urban legend has it that like many a good idea Gmail was born at a lunch table discussion in a Google cafeteria. Giving employees this space where they feel able to safely discuss issues related to work and the workplace in a comfortable environment offers a valid benefit as a pressure valve – better to let the employees vent than have them bottle up the strain inside.

Many organizations have reported that having a ‘good’ cafeteria is an important component in attracting and retaining talent. Clearly the cafeteria has an even more key role to play in helping the employees stay engaged while they are at work. Time for lunch – let’s make it a good one!

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  Organization Productivity, Work Efficiency

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