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Pot Roast, Pad Thai and Productivity

Hungry for better team performance?

New research shows that eating meals together may be the key. Surprisingly, surveys show that 80 percent of workers eat at their desks -- often because they assume they will be more productive if they plow through lunch rather than socialize with co-workers at mealtime.

On the contrary, the restorative effect of taking a midday break with colleagues actually boosts productivity and increases overall morale and job satisfaction.

This perspective is far from new. According to Cornell University's Kevin Kniffen -- lead researcher and co-author of a recent study showing a clear link between group meals and greater team performance -- even our primal ancestors embraced the tradition of communal eating as a way to forge relationships, strengthen social bonds, and achieve community goals. Says Kniffen,"From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue."

Read on to learn the implications and reap the benefits of his findings.

The setting: Over the course of 15 months, Kniffen and his team conducted interviews and surveys with individual firefighters and their supervisors at more than 13 firehouses linked to a large U.S. city fire department. Since firefighters typically eat at least one meal together during their shift, and communal cooking and cleaning up is part of that routine, the firehouse environment provided an authentic setting to examine whether or not shared time in the dining room (vs. solo eating) leads to better teamwork and improved squad performance.

The findings: Based on self-reports, many firefighters noted that the more they ate with their team, the better they performed. Teams that cooked together were about twice as likely to demonstrate cooperative behavior; apparently the family bond created by communal meals increased their desire to help co-workers with tasks outside the boundaries of their job.

Input from department supervisors (who compared ratings of their platoon's performance to that of other fire companies in which they have served) indicated much higher performance ratings for platoons that most often dined together vs. those who did not regularly eat meals as a group.

A few side notes: Researchers acknowledge that they can't say for sure whether preparing and eating food together accounts for greater team performance or whether higher-performing teams prefer to eat together. Mealtime cliques or choppy group dynamics might explain why some firefighters chose to eat solo, yet assuming that workers look forward to these gatherings, it is reasonable to conclude that eating together can be viewed as an easy and enjoyable way to improve team performance.

What's the takeaway?

Socializing with co-workers over a meal (vs. eating alone at your desk) is uplifting and energizing. It bars isolation and fosters the kind of emotional intimacy that generates goodwill, enhances teamwork, and leads to greater workplace productivity. Based on the tangible results of the firefighter study, researchers believe that greater performance in the workplace can be achieved unobtrusively by promoting social interactions that revolve around everyone's natural need to eat.

While investing in a company cafeteria to enhance employee performance is cost prohibitive for many businesses, there are several fun, easy, and affordable food-centric ways employers can build social bonds, promote teamwork, increase job satisfaction, and hence, boost performance in the workplace. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Encourage a midweek working lunch for your department -- and make sure everyone gets an invite (even the office loners). Specify the caveats and pre-requisites:
    • No checking emails, text messages, or answering phone calls.
    • Bring a healthy sack lunch (no fast food takeout).
    • Come prepared to bounce work ideas off each other, solve problems, and have fun.
  2. Provide a weekly TGIF group lunch for your staff. No doubt, all employees appreciate a free meal. And because you are in charge of the menu, you can ensure a spread of healthy food that's high in protein and antioxidants to keep everyone satisfied and focused. These gatherings are a great way for your staff to end a week of hard work and give them something to look forward to when Monday rolls around. Most of all, footing the bill and encouraging everyone's attendance sends the message that you value what they bring to the team.
  3. Encourage employees to take short breaks throughout the day by providing a supply of healthy snacks and fresh water in the breakroom. The availability of energy-boosting refreshments in a commonly shared area prompts workers to get up from their desks, stretch their legs, and take a brain break. It also creates the opportunity for social interaction with co-workers -- which can do wonders to inspire teamwork.

Need help building a more productive workforce? Contact Personnel Services, and let us help you create a team of top-notch employees today.