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Free food for all: The perks of being an al desko worker

13th Feb 2019
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People at a banquet

Francois Badenhorst investigates the cult of the free or subsidised meal and asks if it really delivers on its ROI promise.

Since paid labour became the norm in the industrialised world, food and work have become firmly enmeshed. Not just employees eating their lunch al desko, but free or subsidised food offered as an employment perk.

Last year, co-working startup WeWork caused a stir when it changed its company policy on food. WeWork’s leaders decided the company would not pay expenses for meals containing meat and all events would be meat free.

The reasoning was environmental. As WeWork’s management -- and some AccountingWEB readers observed -- meat consumption is environmentally troublesome: livestock farming is responsible for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

To many critics, however, an employee’s diet is of no concern to their employer, and an attempt to proscribe their choices reeked of overbearing paternalism. And as has been pointed out elsewhere, individual lifestyle choices will barely make a dent in our worsening climate crisis.

But is it necessarily true that what employees eat and their workplace are unnatural bedfellows?

Free food is one of the stereotypical markers of startup largesse. You can almost see it in your mind’s eye: airy, open plan office, staffed entirely by skinny-jeaned twenty-somethings. But advocates argue that offering perks like free food make sense from an ROI perspective.

“We deliver to companies big and small, from five people teams to 5,000,” said Giles Mitchell, the co-founder of Office Pantry, a caterer for businesses. “From small startups to big banks, almost everyone recognises that time is money, so keeping the team fuelled helps to boost productivity.”

According to Ryan Farquharson, who co-founded the startup ExpoCart and manages its finances, perks -- not just food perks, either -- are a critical part of maintaining employee happiness. ExpoCart employees receive discounted gym membership, monthly team activities, a Tuesday social, games evenings and games consoles.

The ROI, Farquharson said, is definitely there, with everything amounting to an outlay of between £4,000 and £5,000 per year. But in turn, Farquharson said it has boosted employee retention rate. “We use it in our job adverts to attract the best people and we want to make it a good work environment. The staff retention rate speaks for itself: we haven’t had any staff leave at all.”

But there are risks attached to businesses ingratiating themselves into employees’ consumption choices. Certainly, a blurring of private and work life creates new opportunities for friction and controversy, especially if the business takes a particular stance. WeWork’s policy on meat, as mentioned earlier, ignited significant opprobrium.

Even a milder version of WeWork’s stance, Google’s attempt to implement ‘Meatless Mondays’, saw employees throw away silverware and stage a protest BBQ. The incident led Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people operations at Google, to observe: “Human beings really don’t like when you take choice away from them.”

The lesson, seemingly, is perks like food and social events are a benefit. In terms of cost, it’s a rather negligible investment for the returns you get: happier employees, lower turnover and generally a more salubrious work environment. “It’s about the gesture and the feeling of being recognised,” said ExpoCart’s Farquharson. “People love it.”

Last year’s winner of the Accounting Excellence Award for Finance Team of the Year was perks and rewards specialist Perkbox. Entries for the 2019 awards are now open, and if you fancy your chances in the finance team category click here to enter.

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By jimeth
14th Feb 2019 10:38

Introducing a staff canteen at our office has definitely had significant benefits for the business. Apart from the time saving on staff going up the high street to buy lunch it has improved staff morale. But also staff from different departments get drawn into conversations which otherwise would not have happened. It is an environment where discussion about both business and non-business matters can be really fruitful.

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