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How to keep staff happy & healthy: Free food!

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in Compensation and Benefits,Human Resources

During the week before Christ­­mas, the news anchors, pro­­ducers, editors, writers and web staff who work for Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP noshed on barbecue one day, feasted on an assortment of pastas the next and enjoyed unlimited desserts two days in a row. On the 25th, the staff feasted on turkey with all the trimmings, just as they had on Thanksgiving—all on the company’s dime.

The treats were a year-end “thank-you” from management, which recognizes that constant, tight deadlines throughout the day leave most of the station’s employees with too little time to go out for lunch, even on special occasions.

WTOP isn’t the only small em­­ployer that counts food among the regular perks it offers to its workers. It followed the lead of large organizations like Zappos, Facebook and Google, renowned for the elaborate spreads their employees enjoy.

Yes, there is such a thing

Likewise, employees of small em­­ployer Insomniac Games in Bur­­bank, Calif., get free lunch on Fridays. Every other Wednesday, gourmet food trucks stop by Lexington, Mass., marketing firm Vistaprint to serve employees tacos, hot dogs and Korean barbecue. Employees eat all they want, the company foots the bill.

Feeding employees is a fast-growing perk that can benefit staff and employer alike. In a poll of more than 1,000 employees in the United States and the United Kingdom, one-third of professionals said they’re more likely to attend meetings if they know they’ll find food in the conference room. The research, by online meal delivery service Seam­­less, also found that nearly half of those polled might let the promise of free lunches persuade them to accept one job offer over another.

Another study by Glassdoor found that among 20 big tech companies that offer free food as an employee benefit, none had a dissatisfied workforce, and 40% can boast “very high” employee satisfaction.

Camaraderie and collaboration

The intangibles of offering employee meals can be powerful. When lunch is on the house, co-workers are more likely to eat together, which can lead to greater camaraderie and more ­collaboration.

Employees routinely tell pollsters that when their employers feed them, they feel appreciated and rewarded for their good work. Breaking bread together adds fun to the workday. A monthly luncheon or catered breakfast has become a common way to collectively celebrate employee birthdays.

The opportunity to nosh for free can encourage employees to take breaks when they need them. Many companies place bowls of fresh fruit and healthy snacks around the office as an invitation to employees to socialize and stretch their legs. And offering free food in the company cafeteria can encourage employees to take their lunch breaks, according to polls that reveal far fewer employees take daily lunch breaks than in 2010, and 34% usually eat at their desks.

Needless to say, employees love the perk. One Chicago company, which supplies a free lunch to its 220 employees every Friday, estimates it saves each worker about $400 a year.

One of the beauties of food as a perk is that it’s an infinitely scalable benefit. Go big like Google, which famously spends up to $20 per day per employee to feed its 8,000 workers. Or make meals a special occasion—maybe once a month or quarterly.

Meals that match your workplace

Organizations of all sizes find that even occasional meals or simple snacks can reap many of the same benefits as a daily feast. If you’re considering offering meals as an employee benefit, follow these guidelines:

Encourage healthy eating. Stocking immune-boosting foods in the company cafeteria could help employees ward off colds and flu. Healthcare company Geneia suggests giving away oranges, raw vegetables, whole-grain cereals, green tea and other healthy snacks with vitamins and antioxidants that prevent illness.

  • Align meals and snacks with your wellness program. A business that serves doughnuts at staff meetings sends mixed messages if it also rewards them for losing weight and lowering their cholesterol.
  • Accommodate employees with dietary restrictions, like those who don’t eat meat, wheat or dairy products.
  • Identify ingredients so people with food allergies will know to stay away from snacks that contain nuts or wheat, for instance.
  • Set a savory trap to lure employees to lunchtime presentations about benefits, nutrition, financial planning or other topics.
  • Use food as a recruiting tool. When Yahoo started offering free meals to employees shortly after CEO Marissa Mayer took over, the new exec explained to investors that the perk was one way to make the company “the absolute best place to work.”

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