September 6, 2022

Is Free Lunch the New Best Employee Incentive? ‍

Lauren Kemp

During the onset of the pandemic, many workers transitioned to remote positions. Unbeknownst to employers, this would be a permanent, dramatic change to the work landscape. Current and future employees greatly value choosing their work environment, with a strong lean toward remote work. In May 2021, it was found that 70% of companies planned to adopt the hybrid model of partially remote and partially in-office work. Microsoft's Work Trend Index found that 66% of employers are redesigning their work models to accommodate hybrid work arrangements. Companies that have begun this shift include Adobe, Salesforce, Twitter, and Spotify.

Employees are eager to sustain their newly found remote work preference. According to FlexJobs' 10th Annual Survey, 58% of respondents desire to be fully remote post-pandemic, and 39% want a hybrid arrangement. This shows that 97% of workers prefer at least some form of remote work. Employees are basing their employment decisions on this work model. According to the survey, 44% of respondents confirmed that they know at least one person who has quit their job or is planning to quit because of an in-office work requirement, 24% of workers shared they were willing to take up to a 20% pay cut to work remotely, and 21% said they would even give up some vacation time to work from home. 

Employees' strong preference for work from home contradicts employers' desires. 50% of companies want workers back in the office five days a week. After two years of remote work, some employers want to revert to an in-person appointment because of company cultural benefits, increased connection, and enhanced creativity in a face-to-face environment. 

How can companies get employees back in the office? 

There are countless employee benefits that companies can provide. Some benefits are more common, but which are most effective in getting employees back in the office? Recently, a friend of mine shared that their company's lunch program heavily incentivized someone in his life. The company facilitated the lunch program in the following way: employees work in a hybrid environment and are allowed to come into the office when desired. Every night, the company sends a lunch order form to its employees, allowing them to pre-order a meal for the next day from a rotation of restaurants in the area. Employees can place their order for lunch the next day, delivered to the office. Ordering a meal makes them feel more obligated to work in the office the next day, increasing in-office hours.

During our discussion, several others agreed that they would more frequently work in the office if given the benefit of ordering lunch the night before. Could it be that simple? No raise required, no additional PTO, just free lunch? 

Intrigued, I looked into this seemingly too-good-to-be-true benefit; here are my findings. 

Establishing a corporate lunch program leads to:

  • A competitive advantage that others want to take part in: Providing lunch to employees provides a company with a competitive advantage for hiring that does not involve competitive salaries with industry leaders. Making your company's competitive edge based on your people and desired culture allows it to produce the best work and attract top talent not motivated by money alone. 
  • Cross-functional empathy (XFE): Companies are commonly shifting toward a more collaborative culture, meaning every employee must know the organization's goals and how their contributions and day-to-day work lead toward overall company success. Free lunch reinforces bonds between people, establishing small reminders that, in turn, produce highly collective outcomes. 
  • Better meetings: Offering lunch meetings can pay for itself repeatedly. Providing a meal incentivizes employees to attend the conference and implies a succinct gathering as there is a general timeframe surrounding meals. Meals save everyone from the frustration and unpredictability that long meetings are known for. Lunch meetings also lead to greater employee participation; 65% of employees conduct other work on conference calls and in face-to-face meetings. Providing lunch discourages employees from checking their phones or working on a laptop during meetings. 
  • Increased collaboration: Working relationships are stronger when personal connections are established. However, establishing links with coworkers can be difficult throughout the day when free time is limited. A corporate lunch program is a good solution as it allows employees to sit together daily and discuss things beyond work. They are more likely to build relationships with other departments, positively affecting collaboration and employee satisfaction. 
  • Decreased turnover: Job dissatisfaction is the primary reason for employee turnover, and findings show that more employees prefer new/additional benefits over a pay raise. Millennials, in particular, are known to be "foodies," but they also prioritize the health of their meals. As they have now surpassed Generation X as the largest generation in the United States workforce, providing an avenue for their healthy meal desires is beneficial. 

A study performed by Cubist Pharmaceuticals, a company with nearly 800 employees, showed how employee interaction during lunch affects the work environment. They monitored sensors on 30 employees to track the tone and frequency of their lunch conversations. This data was merged with email traffic and the results of weekly surveys in which employees rated their energy and productivity. Findings showed that employees who shared meals also communicated more frequently, leading to an increase in productivity.

How to integrate free lunch into your company: 

Implementing this benefit to achieve its maximum benefit is more complex than simply ordering food regularly. If your organization decides to provide lunch, understand the following information to ensure you are maximizing this effort's return on investment. 

  1. Establish basic guidelines: For instance, not starting lunch until noon can help everyone to begin on the same page, set expectations, and maintain order.
  2. Announce the program and explain its importance: Emphasizing that partaking in employee lunch is not mandatory is essential, as is explaining the benefits of utilizing this benefit. Suppose you can explain why your company decided to implement this new perk rather than just stating what it is. In that case, employees will better understand how vital their participation is. 
  3. Get leadership involved: Target a few initial individuals, especially those in leadership positions, to get the ball rolling on the program. Underutilization makes the perk a waste of resources and effort. 
  4. Experiment to find the right fit: Understand that finding the right rhythm for this option may take time is essential. What works for one company may not necessarily work for the next, but keeping employees in the loop on the company's effort to integrate a corporate lunch policy will make the implementation easier. 

Similar to how different benefits fit better for some organizations than others, different work models are also more beneficial for others. Hybrid, remote, and in-person are the three categories that work generally falls into. 

Remote vs. hybrid work models

Remote: Remote work does not require employees to be present in physical offices but allows them to work from home or anywhere else. This model focuses more on the product and less on the amount of time spent working. 

Hybrid: Hybrid work models generally involve employees working both in the office and from home, depending on the day of the week. The split between working from home and an office largely depends on the company. 

Each work model has pros and cons; for this article, the following describes the benefits of working from home (even part-time) and the benefits of working entirely in the office. 

Benefits of working from home

  • Working from home, even partially, is particularly beneficial for certain people. Young parents, those with health conditions, travelers, and those who have multiple jobs all greatly benefit from working out of the office. 
  • Working remotely does not always mean from a home office; it can mean working virtually anywhere. Employees can work from anywhere with wifi and have increased hours due to no commute to and from work. This adds to the widespread increase in work-life balance seen in some remote working situations. 
  • Flexibility increases in a remote environment, as many companies allow employees to create their schedules. If you prefer to work early in the morning or later in the evening, you can customize your schedule to fit your ideal work hours. 
  • Productivity is often enhanced in remote environments compared to those who have to attend meetings or engage in conversations that distract them from their responsibilities. Fewer distractions usually equal more productivity.
  • Many people report reduced stress in an at-home workplace. Avoiding traffic during a traditional commute to work, getting outside for a few minutes during the day, and being in a comfortable environment can all contribute to reduced stress. 

Benefits of working fully in-office 

  • Strengthening bonds and connections between employees, especially those in different departments, is a great way to create a productive company culture. This is an area that it appears cannot be equalized between in-person and remote working options. Even with the availability of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, the collaboration and engagement facilitated in an in-person work environment is more robust than that of remote working models. 
  • A positive employee culture where people are comfortable and can thrive professionally is better facilitated when employees are physically present. 
  • Creating a workplace that supports achievement and purpose is vital to the overall health of an organization. Working in an office increases an employee's sense of purpose and belonging. Being around like-minded individuals who share a common goal is one way to establish individual purpose within the organization. This sense of purpose and belonging can be difficult to show online. 
  • Working in person helps new hires experience a successful onboarding process. New employees have better resources to ask questions and learn from others, which leads to more confidence in their new position. 

Companies can become overwhelmed by trying to please employees and do what is best for the organization. Fortunately, seemingly small benefits, such as the option for free employee lunch, can make a massive difference in the desire to return to the office. With the growing gap between employees' remote working preference and companies' desire to return to an in-person work environment, implementing perks that matter to employees is an excellent way to find shared ground between employees and employers.

Written by Lauren Kemp

Lauren Kemp, Communications and Marketing Specialist at J2T, earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Management with a minor in Latin American studies and a Master of Science in Innovation and Management from Montana State University. Lauren hails from Montana and enjoys reading about the history of her home state. Her bucket-list items include touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and taking an immersion trip to Chile to experience Latin American culture first-hand.

J2T is a recruiting and staffing firm that solely focuses on accounting and finance roles. J2T Flex facilitates all operational accounting needs, both direct hire and contract or contract-to-hire needs. On the direct hire side, J2T Recruiting specializes in senior positions starting at Sr. Accountant up through CFO in both direct hire and contract or contract-to-hire needs encompassing everything in the corporate accounting and finance organizational chart. J2T is a women-owned business exclusively serving the Colorado and Montana markets with the overarching goal to serve you in all areas of the hiring experience.