Does free food make your company happy?

Does free food make employees happy?

Companies are now offering free tea, coffee, meals and even alcohol in an effort to make their staff happy. You probably even work in such an office. The question is, does it work?

 No more than 50 metres

No more than 50 metres

One of the oldest adages of business life is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But employers are fast making this cliché a thing of the past. A free lunch is now commonplace across the business world.

City firms and technology firms are known to be the most generous providers. They have canteens full of free food, from hot meals to snacks, offering everything you can think of. Google even has a 50 metre rule.


So what do companies get in return?

One of the reasons companies are providing free food is that it improves employee morale. On top of that it improve staff wellbeing and also companies build a sense of belonging with their staff within a fully stocked office.

Why else do companies provide free food?

Employers are constantly looking to enhance the engagement of their employees, especially as it directly increases productivity

It’s the principle of reciprocity. If someone does something for you and you then you feel obliged to do something back.
— Sandi Mann, Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire


This echoes one of Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion. As humans we constantly feel the urge to return favours, which is centered around reciprocity.

In its extreme form, it can lead us feeling obliged to accept discounts, influence our purchase decisions, or even engage us into offering time. So by giving the gift of free food, Cialdini is saying employees will want to give back to their employer and work harder as a result.

Who knows? Someone may even talk about his or her free food perk with someone outside of work during a serendipitous interaction. The positive multiplier may well go further than you think.

We even purposefully keep queues in the canteen at a certain length to encourage serendipitous interaction.
— Dan Cobley, former Google UK MD

What is a “serendipitous interaction”?

A serendipitous interaction is an interaction with a pleasant surprise. You never quite know what the outcome will be. Companies hope that they will lead to cross-departmental creative discussions, so by maximising the chances these interactions take place you increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

 A serendipitous interaction

A serendipitous interaction

And companies are taking this seriously. So seriously, in fact that Yahoo have banned staff from working at home and Google designed their office rooftops with the sole purpose of maximising the number of these serendipitous interactions (by optimising the seating arrangements if you were wondering).


So what could be offered?

To understand what to offer, we need to know what everyone wants. Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs describes what human beings need to feel comfortable before thriving. It starts at the basic physiological level, with food, shelter and safety being viewed as a necessity.

 I'm off on a snack hunt...

I'm off on a snack hunt...

If you as the company take care of this for people, by providing free food, then people do not have to worry about where their next meal will come from and can move onto the next level – self-actualisation.

Maslow believed that once these primal concerns are dealt with, people can give full commitment to their work. By becoming so engaged in working, people become fulfilled as they grow and test themselves.

Have you thought to…

·      Offer free breakfast once or twice a week

·      Offer meeting snacks and drinks so no one has to worry about going two hours with no sustenance

·      Provide free lunch

·      Offer free snacks to keep employees energy fuelled throughout the day

·      Offer free fruit to make sure everyone gets their five a day

·      Offer evening drinks on Fridays

Probably the most prevalent provision has been the introduction of free teas and coffees into the workplace. Initially they were brought in for meetings to help entice people to be on time. Now the practice has filtered throughout offices, and is considered a given by workers now.

If it’s unpredictable and people are told it’s because you’ve had a fantastic month, it’s a lot better. It shows you realise people are working hard and you want to reward them.
— Pamela Yeow, Senior Management Lecturer, University of Kent

Google could be said to take employee perks too far however. From the free gym to pool tables, free laundry to lounges, you name it they most probably offer it. The new London Kings Cross office is even expecting a climbing wall to be installed. Employees have responded so well to these perks that in 2005, one of their employees actually started living in the company’s office for a dare, and there is even a longest stay competition running on Quora.

It’s not just Google either. Start ups are increasingly turning to quirky perks and office designs to entice people to work for their start up.


So does free food make for one happy company?

Taking everything above into account, it does seem that providing food makes people happy. But not in the way we initially think.

It makes staff happy because free food empowers them to think about the more important issues. As one of their basic needs has been met, that of food and drink, they do not need to think about their next 3pm snack hunt. Instead your employees can expend that pent up brain power on the important decisions.

It makes employers happy because staff are more likely to chat over lunch or whilst taking a shared break snaffling some brain food, increasing the likelihood or probability of a serendipitous interaction taking place. These moments make companies more innovative as ideas are shared, all for a fraction of the cost of foregoing this provision, creating a fantastic working environment laying the foundations to a great company.

So just like a family, a company has many different takes on the same question. And just as a family that eats together stays together, it looks like the companies that offer free food are the ones to watch. 

Would you like free food in your office?