Does Pizza Day Help?

Offering free lunches to employees is a mixed bag. 

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Every other Friday, Shelly and her colleagues gather in the main conference room, discussing their latest projects and catching up on news. What's brought them all to the table? Free lunch.

"Everyone tries to sit together," says Shelly, who works in communications. "Even if it's just for 10 minutes, we catch up over the communal table."

Free food in the workplace may be contributing to thicker waistlines and revenue losses for local retailers.

Shelly's office is a lot like many corporate settings these days, where free snacks, catered lunches, or open-bar happy hours have become clichés of the modern office. The thinking goes like this: Provide free food, and your employees will work harder and longer, both because they won't waste time stepping out of the office to grab a bite, and they'll feel warm and fuzzy about their firms when they get to save $10 for the day. Plus, they'll have a chance to relax and catch up with colleagues, only bolstering their connections.

But the research shows free lunches are a mixed bag. One study by the grocery-delivery service Peapod found that, of employees whose offices offered free food, 67% said they were extremely or very happy with their jobs. And yet researchers at South Africa's Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University who were studying motivators for blue-collar and frontline employees noted that free lunches and wine-and-cheese nights were the least important motivators of job performance, compared to paid leave or wage increases. Meanwhile, opponents of free meals in the office have questioned whether such perks are just window dressing for real work-life balance, and really just a reason for employees to work longer hours or spend their lunch hour at their desk, scarfing down a free slice of pizza.

What's more, lawmakers and health organizations are questioning the free-food practice, too. In Mountain View, California, legislators banned the construction of new workplace cafeterias offering free food, after local retailers bemoaned the loss of business from the thousands of workers at Google, Facebook, and other tech behemoths. San Francisco is also looking into a similar ban. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that employees who receive free food or drinks consume almost 1,300 calories a week at work-more than half the recommended average daily diet of 2,000 calories.

That isn't to say, though, that the impact of a free lunch is null, career pros say. It's just that it has to be done right. In firehouses, for example, there's an 81% rate of participation in group lunches and dinners while people are on shift. Their daily meals are how firefighters connect, relax, and conform to the rules of the house, according to a study by a group of Cornell University researchers. Meal participation in effective fire stations was "significantly associated with unit-level performance," the researchers concluded.

While the idea of a daily meal for most corporations seems almost absurd, and not as necessary as it is for a group of people who work long shifts and are saving lives each day, the principle can create goodwill among employees. "It doesn't necessarily motivate me, but it's a sign that my company cares," Shelly says. It also gives her a chance to connect to others in her firm with whom she may not have direct interactions throughout the normal workweek.

"At a certain point, there must be a fine balance of group cohesion-not too much, not too little-in order to achieve maximum performance results," says Sean Wise, author of a Baylor University research paper that found there's also a point where group solidarity and bonding can lead to weaker performance, if it's overstepped.

Ultimately, the trick to providing free food boils down to this: If it's the only perk your company is offering, and a replacement for some other perk (such as a raise), it isn't going to be that effective. But if it's a gesture that's part of other company goodwill actions-getting to work from home occasionally or bringing your pet to work-then it probably makes you feel better because it's a sign that your company really does value its employees.

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