Is Free Lunch a Positive?


Many companies, especially in the bay area, offer free lunch for their employees. They take it as an article of faith this is a good thing. Here's one presentation that takes that position. Me, I'm not so sure.

I've worked at 2 companies that offered free lunch. Crystal Dynamics was the first. Google the second. I started at Crystal Dynamics in 1993 as something like employee #25 or so. In other words it was a small company. One of the employees would go and get lunch generally from a fast food restaurant, bring it back and announce "lunch" on the intercom. That changed at some point to being catered by one of the employee's mothers and later to having a different restaurant each day cater the lunch.

At Google, especially on the main campus in 2013 they have something like 20 different cafeterias and employees can choose to go to any one of them. More than half also serve breakfast and a few serve dinner as well.

This is clearly a perk. Employees love it. I'm sure if someone was offered a job between two companies, all other things being equal, they'd pick the one with the free lunch over the one without.

But I'm curious if it's really a plus for the company. I believe the assumed benefits are

  1. As a perk it helps hire and retain people.
  2. People eat lunch together enhancing communication
  3. People eating lunch together builds relationships
  4. More time is spent working since people spend less time at lunch

I can't really argue with #1. People, even me, perceive it as a perk. It's not just nice to have free food it saves me money. I'm not out buying lunch everyday. That's probably $1200−$2500 a year assuming $5−$10 per meal. Of course it's not possible to know if that's really a perk or if they'd raise everyone's salary by $1200−$2500 a year if they weren't paying for food, a kitchen, and a staff.

#4 I'm a little less positive on. If you go out to lunch it generally takes an hour. You've got to walk or drive somewhere, wait in line, eat, walk or drive back. Lunch at work generally takes 20−30 minutes max. You walk from your desk to the eating place, food is handed to you, it takes no more than 10 minutes to eat it, you might chat for another 5 and then back to work. Does that mean you do more work? If you look at it as a person works 9 to 6 and they take a hour lunch break vs they work 9 to 6 and with 30 minute lunch break then yea. But, how do you know they aren't working 9 to 5:30 instead? In other words, how do you know you're actually getting an extra 30 minutes of work out of them? Even if they are at their desk more do you know if a 30 minute break gives them more or less energy than a 60 minute break? Lots of solutions are thought up when not at your desk. Is that just coincidence or does being away from your desk somehow free your mind to find the solution? If so, would a 60 minute lunch break lead to more "ah−ha" moments? I have no idea.

#2 and #3 I'm going to group together. Both seem to assume that people will eat alone if they don't eat together at work. That's clearly a false assumption. Most people at places that don't provide free lunch go out in groups. People that go out to lunch spend 60 minutes together vs people that eat a free lunch only 30 minutes. People that go out to lunch have to coordinate more (where we going? Who's driving?, etc...) vs people that get free lunch. In other words they get more practice self organizing. People that go out to lunch generally have to spend 10−15 minutes waiting for food to arrive and another 10−15 getting to and from the venue which is a time to discuss things with very little interruption. People who get free food generally get the food nearly immediately and the discussion while eating is often much more subdued given their mouths are full of food.

In my personal experience I feel like free lunches might only be good for small companies, say 20 or less people, where there is the possibility of everyone eating together. In a large company I feel like it's a net loss. While I can't argue with #1 above that it's good for recruiting I feel like the effort to get lunch going and the extra time spent together doing it brings people closer and makes people better teammates than the free lunch. I also feel like the 60 minute break away from the office refreshes people's spirit more than the 20−30 minute free lunch at work.

I don't know if there is any way to prove either but I don't think "free lunch = best practice" is a given.

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