Why employers should see canteens as an investment: staff who eat together work better together

Cornell University study of firefighters who have meals together finds their teamwork is better than that of colleagues who dine alone. For some, communal meal is so important they eat dinner at home and at work

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 3:35pm

“Laughter is brightest in the place where food is,” goes an Irish proverb - and so, it seems is job performance. A study of firefighter platoons who ate meals together showed they performed better on the job as a group than firefighter teams whose members dined alone.

The Cornell University researchers who conducted the study say their findings suggest companies that invest to provide staff with upscale workplace canteens or catered meals receive a good return on their investment.

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“Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work,” says the study’s author, Kevin Kniffin, visiting assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

Organisations would do better to consider spending on cafeterias as investment in employee performance, Kniffin says.

Technology companies Facebook and Google are famous for their abundant canteens, offering hot meals, desserts and drinks at no cost to staff. Google reportedly have a “150 feet” rule, stipulating that no worker should be further than this distance from a food outlet.

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Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a fire department of a large American city with more than 2,100 people and over 50 fire stations (or firehouses).

The researchers asked the department’s 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to 10 the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they’ve served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together in a typical four-day work week.

The platoons who ate together most often got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6pm often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse.

One firefighter said, in the company of his co-workers, “you don’t want to diss the wife” by turning down the food she prepared - implying that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers.

“To me, that’s a good example of the importance of the group. It’s comparable to his family,” says Kniffin, whose father served for years as a firefighter in a big city.

In fact, the researchers noted, firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin says.

The study appears in the current issue of the journal Human Performance.

Think you have the best staff canteen in Hong Kong? Email jeanette.wang@scmp.com a photo plus a brief explanation of why you think so.