Is the fastest way to an employee’s heart through their belly? These organisations grow, cook and serve food as a staff benefit, believing it increases collaboration and improves retention.
Fancy a 12-hour braised lamb shoulder infused with rosemary and garlic, garnished with caramelised onion and spinach, on a crunchy baguette? Or, if you’re a vegetarian, a cinnamon and coriander-spiced roast pumpkin and tahini sandwich?
This was on the lunch menu at Finder.com recently, brought in from local restaurant Mr Crackles in Darlinghurst, for 85 employees at the consumer comparison business. At Medibank’s head office in Melbourne the company’s 1,500 employees can choose a wholesome lunch or breakfast at their subsidised onsite cafe, Harvest. They can also pick their own vegetables, fruit or herbs in the company’s edible garden on the ground floor, and then chop up a salad or make a quick stir-fry or smoothie in the staff kitchens on each floor.
Sharing a meal is a time-honoured way of building rapport with others. Many employers, from small tech companies to large law firms, provide food and even cook meals at work. Some companies are now changing their whole approach to food – especially those with a focus on health. It improves engagement, interaction and long-term wellbeing, executives say.
“Our philosophy is not just about eating,” says Karen Oldaker, Medibank’s general manager of wellbeing and community, “but about understanding food, planting it, growing it, harvesting it, cooking it.”
Chew on this
At Finder.com in Sydney, eating communally gives staff a feeling of belonging. “Our lunches are awesome,” says Jamie Finnegan, head of talent acquisition. “But regardless of the food served each day, it is about the fantastic experience of coming together, sitting down and eating. Our founder could sit down beside someone who does data entry. They might talk about sport or the arts. Quite often not about work.”
Finder.com’s employee turnover is less than five per cent and Finnegan says focusing on a culture of sharing and eating together is a frequently cited reason why employees stay. The company also has far fewer sick days than the industry average.
For breakfast, the company offers cereals, yoghurt, fruit, eggs, toast, pastries, spreads and access to a coffee machine and a fridge filled with coconut water, juices, carbonated drinks as well as a personalised Boost Juice. So missing breakfast doesn’t seem like a sensible option.
Staff meet a month in advance to discuss lunches from outside caterers. When lunch is delivered, a message goes up on the intranet and everyone eats together. Employers who provide food at work save their employees about $5,000 a year in personal lunch bills, says Finnegan.
Google has a similar philosophy, offering free food from 185 onsite cafes globally – 30 of them at the Mountain View, California, head office. Its cafes and stocked kitchen areas are strategically placed between different work sections to foster more cross-pollination of innovation and creativity, according to Laslo Block, former Google senior vice president of people operations.
Medibank also uses food as a focus to give back to its employees and the community. Frequently, the company organises employee team-building cooking events in the commercial kitchen adjacent to the garden.
“Recently, we had a day when some staff made pickles, preserves and jams to give to our workers in the call centres,” says Oldaker. Medibank’s food philosophy is linked to a partnership with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation that’s been going since 2012 – and together they’ve created the Healthy Kids program. A few weeks ago, a group of primary school children came into the commercial kitchen and cooked up lunch for Medibank’s senior executives.
In another initiative, indigenous hospitality students from Charcoal Lane, a Fitzroy restaurant run by Mission Australia, taught Medibank staff about cooking with native bushfoods. “It was about linking food to geography and the seasons,” Oldaker says.
Swisse Wellness, a vitamin and supplement company with offices in Australia, US, UK and China, is another business that provides breakfast, fresh fruit, nuts, smoothies and weekly lunches in all its offices.
“We have on-site nutritionists, dieticians and naturopaths to ensure that everything is wholefood, not high in sugar, and nutrient dense,” says Merika Brown, the culture and engagement manager. “We invest in providing the healthiest choice for all their needs.” Recent weekly lunches have included Poké bowls – a traditional Hawaiian dish with fresh vegetables, raw fish, soy sauce and Japanese vinegar.
The connection part is vital, says Brown. “People eating and speaking together develop positive relationships and feel that work is a place they want to come to – and that’s good for everyone.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 edition of HRM Magazine.