Many employers have replaced drab break rooms hosting a couple randomly-stocked vending machines with full service kitchens offering free hot lunches while a variety of free snacks are available at locations around the office at all times. Coffee machines have been replaced by espresso and latte bars featuring the latest oat milk chai drink. Soda can still be found, but energy and sports drinks have been added for those who want something different.
These amenities – which have more in common with high-end hotels than an office where work is expected to get done – have also migrated from Silicon Valley startups to the rest of the American business world. They are now seen as key perks providing a competitive advantage when a company is recruiting new employees or seeking to retain existing staff. If they’re not offered, the worry is the company won’t even get the attention of those looking for work.
Making food and snacks available for employees to grab whenever they’re feeling peckish and coffee for when they need a pick-me-up at 3pm isn’t wholly motivated by altruism. By dong so companies significantly reduce the amount of time people are getting up from their desks and even leaving the office. A trip down the block for coffee might take 20-30 minutes after an elevator ride, walking a couple blocks, waiting for the drink and then returning. Making drinks of the same quality available a three minute walk within the office means the company is gaining 17-27 minutes of productivity back.
The number of companies making free snacks and beverages in the workplace is rising because of the potential for increased productivity. A salaried employee is still getting the same paycheck, even if they take that 30 minute walk for coffee, so employers feel they are reclaiming time being stolen from them. Unsurprisingly, most of the workers whose employers offered free food and snacks were white college-educated individuals.
While there is some basis for the idea that offering free food and beverages in the workplace results in higher levels of employee happiness and satisfaction it’s also an effective way to keep costs down. Keeping snack areas stocked is cheaper than raising salaries at the same time improves productivity. Some companies rationalize that by saying those people then aren’t spending some of the money they would be paid on food, but it also puts the company in the position of restricting people’s options.
If they don’t want the kinds of snacks offered for free, they have to buy their own, eating into their paychecks even further.
If they are taking advantage of free snacks, they may choose to stay at the company not because they want to but because they can’t afford to lose out on that perk.
Some surveys have listed “free food” as being among the perks and benefits workers value more than higher wages, but the reasons for that decision are conspicuously absent. It may well be that workers are doing the math, realizing the money they save on shopping can be put toward skyrocketing housing, energy and education costs.
Some lawmakers, particularly in California, are cracking down on free office lunches, in part because it’s decimating the local restaurant and grocery store economy. Why eat out when you have grilled salmon and infused rosewater just down the hall? That leads to reduced income for restaurant and bar owners, which means they are able to hire fewer workers, increasing economic inequality.
There’s also the health of the workers to consider. Free food accounted for 71 percent of all calories obtained at work in a 2018 CDC study, but most of those calories came from foods loaded with sugar and fat, contributing to overall obesity and other health problems.
It’s another instance of companies shooting themselves in the foot by emphasizing short-term productivity gains over long-term worker health and satisfaction. People become dependent on corporate largesse that can be revoked at any time, eating more than they need to because they’re stressed and the food is available. Down the road they, not the company, will have to deal with the ramifications as their potential productivity is reduced and their job opportunities dry up.