The power of a workplace meal
A colleague, also an architect, once told me a story about a serious problem that emerged from one of his projects. His firm had designed an addition to a building housing a major a research institute. Imagine the existing building as L-shaped with two wings of research labs connected to a central services hub containing a cafeteria. His designers then added a third leg to the complex, forming a Y-shaped building.
In other modifications, his team reasoned that the people housed in each of the wings could work more efficiently if the cafeteria were decentralized. So they designed satellite cafeterias in each of the three wings. This shortened travel distances for the researchers and freed them from the density of the central cafeteria concept.
About a year after they occupied the new and renovated facilities, the director of the institute called the architect to express significant concern about the design. The creative output of the institute had declined by half. After having considered other factors, he focused on the building as the culprit.
The architects had assumed that efficiency was a key to creative productivity. They had not considered that all innovation is now social. The centralized cafeteria meant that a mixed and multi-disciplinary group of scientists, engineers and technicians ate together in the same place – commensality. The density of the cafeteria and the resultant interactions that took place between diverse disciplines around those meals were a significant contributor to the generation and development of the creative output of the institute.
After another project to recentralize the cafeteria, the director saw the output of the institute rise again.
Researchers at Cornell have now also shown the link between commensality and cohesive, high-performance teams. They acknowledge that “worksite eating can generate value by (1) facilitating greater collaborations among co-workers who might otherwise not talk with each other except when they break for eating, (2) increasing productivity by minimizing time spent traveling for an off-site meal, and (3) encouraging healthy eating—and lower health insurance costs—through influence over menus.”
Their study of the interactions in a group of firehouses goes further, however, and highlights how "the relatively intimate act of coworkers eating with each other is positively correlated with enhanced team performance.” Especially interesting in their study is the differential impact of cooking together in a self-initiated and self-sustaining practice.
While there are multiple examples of methods that organizations use to inspire team cohesiveness and enhance performance, simply providing a place where employees can gather to cook and eat with each other might provide the greatest return on investment in the workplace.