You might think it’s just a nice perk when your boss treats the office to lunch. But it turns out that chowing down with your colleagues does more than just quell your hunger. Eating with your co-workers can actually make you work better as a team, a recent study by researchers at Cornell University has found.
Kevin Kniffin, a professor in the department of applied economics and management and the lead author on the study, and his colleagues asked firefighters working in 50 firehouses in a large U.S. city how often they ate together. They also asked the department’s 395 supervisors to rate the performance of their platoons compared to others in which they’d served. Platoons where firefighters reported eating together more frequently received higher performance scores than those where people were less likely to sit down for a meal.
The findings suggest that other groups of workers might also benefit from eating together, according to Kniffin and his co-authors, and that companies looking to enhance team performance could do well to consider investing in a new cafeteria. The results of the study were published in the journal Human Performance.
“Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work,” Kniffin said. “From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”
Sitting down for lunch with colleagues can encourage collaboration that might not otherwise occur, the researchers suggested. Providing in-office meals also means that people don’t need to leave the building to eat, which can enhance productivity. Companies may also be able to lower health costs by providing healthy menu options for workers.
The Cornell findings support what some have claimed in the past: That eating in the office – though not at your desk – is good for both workers and the company. (You can bet Google isn’t providing free gourmet food to its employees just to make them happy.) Yet, company cafeterias remain a rare perk. Only 20% of businesses have on-site dining, and even fewer subsidize the service, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Employers who try to squeeze more productivity out of their workers by forcing them to eat together might not see the results they want, though. A study 2013 study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that people were less fatigued at the end of the day when they were able to choose for themselves what they did at lunch.
Socializing with co-workers can be exhausting if people feel forced to do it, the researchers noted. “You’re hanging out with people who you can’t necessarily kick back and be yourself with,” John Trougakos, an associate professor of management, said.
The firefighters in the Cornell study, in contrast, were largely responsible for organizing their own communal meals. Other than providing a kitchen where people could prepare food, the department didn’t regulate how platoons ate. Yet the family-like culture of the firehouses meant that platoons that didn’t eat together were seen as dysfunctional.
“It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.
Your office probably isn’t as tight-knit as a platoon of firefighters, and you may not want to eat lunch with your co-workers every day. But even an occasional meal with the people you work with can have big benefits, both in terms of productivity and your career.
“[I]t’s not a bad idea to occasionally have lunch with coworkers, even if you don’t do it most of the time,” Alison Green of Ask a Manager wrote. “It’s an investment in your relationships at work … that can pay off in terms of your professional relationships, ability to get things done in your office, networking when you leave this job, and the way you’re perceived.”