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Feeding Office Employees May Be a More Effective Use of Real Estate in the Era of Hybrid Work

The fight to bring workers back to the office continues. Many companies, wary of destroying culture and suffocating creativity by having a predominantly remote workforce, have attempted to meet workers in the middle by gently coaxing them back to the office. But that gentle coaxing doesn’t seem to be enough. Workers have been taking advantage of their newfound leverage as a result of the pandemic and a tight labor market to push for the ability to work from home. That means that companies need to make it worth their workers’ while to get them back at their desks. And one way to their employee’s hearts is through their stomachs. 

Before the pandemic, the companies that fed their employees were considered the crown jewel of workplaces. Google, the shining example of this, touted its wide selections of fresh, organic food offerings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as integral to its company culture. “No one should be more than 200 feet away from food,” was Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s famous demand to architects and office designers of Google’s campuses. But most other companies didn’t share Brin’s vision. Then the pandemic hit, occupancy in offices plummeted, and companies are beginning to take a page out of Brin’s book by designating otherwise excess office space as breakout lounges with menu offerings. Now, food is playing a central role in luring employees back into the physical workspace. 

Lunchflation

Food in the office has always been a “can’t miss” amenity, whether it comes from a vending machine, or if you’re a Google employee, a gourmet cafeteria. You’d be hard-pressed to find an office kitchen without a stockpile of granola bars because most offices don’t provide full-fledged meals to their employees. So, employees returning to the office are expected to bring their lunch or buy it. But, the employees who opt to buy their lunch are in for a rude awakening. 

Square, the mobile payment company, researched sales of popular midday meals throughout the United States to understand how much consumers may anticipate paying post-pandemic for their lunches. Comparing data from March 2020 all the way to March of 2022, Square found that the average price for a sandwich increased by 14 percent, wraps by 13 percent, salads by 11 percent, and tacos by 19 percent.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, lunch costs were an afterthought for many office workers, but now, having to go back to the office equals having to pay a small fortune just to get lunch. Even the employees who take the time to pack their own lunches feel the sting of rising food costs. The Consumer Price Index for Food found that grocery store or supermarket food prices last April were 10.8 percent higher than those in April of 2021. Though these prices don’t take seasonal swings into account, it’s still the largest annual increase in 41 years. 

Food inflation has gotten so bad that companies that won’t eat the cost of feeding their employees could see their staff drag their feet back to the office with a resignation letter in hand. Employee meals and snacks are an allowable employer deduction so long as the food is given on the premises, and businesses can see a huge return by investing in food despite inflated costs while giving employees a reason to want to show up to work.

Jonathan Paul, an Assistant Office Manager for a publishing company that operates out of One World Trade Center, is one of those happy employees. When One World Trade Center reopened, Paul’s company chose to pry their employees back to the office by subsidizing their lunches. Offsetting food costs has been great for morale, as Paul explained that ballooning food costs have “not affected me remotely as much thanks to the complimentary lunch my company offers me,” he said. 

Meal the love

Food in the office has gone from a nice-to-have to an absolute necessity for office occupiers who want to attract talent, keep their existing workforce content, and optimize their office real estate. Offices are generally less crowded in the era of hybrid work, and that poses a challenge for both businesses and landlords. It might be tempting for companies to shrink their office real estate footprint if their workforce has adapted to remote work at least some of the time, but excess space could be extremely beneficial when it comes to fostering employee engagement. 

A big part of a floor in Paul’s office had been made redundant by a department that had gone remote. Instead of subleasing the space, the company opted to repurpose it. The space was cleared out, re-carpeted, and completely renovated. Rows of desks were replaced by a splash of art, a plush couch, a TV, an arcade machine with 400 game options, and a fridge full of beer. On days where occupancy is at its highest, Paul’s company hosts parties with catered dinners in that new lounge. 

I asked Paul if he thought the addition of the lounge in tandem with his company’s food initiatives really added enough value to the work experience to entice people to come back to the workplace. “I do believe that after-work parties and the various complementary food that my office doles out have incentivized people to come back,” he answered. “Whether that’s five or three days a week, having my co-workers back in this office convening with one another is helping to rebuild the community that we had before the pandemic.”

Food swing

The question of whether a full belly truly equals a happy heart isn’t exactly new, and food and beverage companies love to roll out study after study that claims that companies who feed their employees will inevitably have a happier, and therefore more productive, workforce. In a 2013 survey by the food delivery company Seamless, 60 percent of office workers surveyed said that having company-provided food around the office “would make them feel more valued and appreciated.” In 2015, PeaPod, a grocery delivery company, found that 67 percent of employees of the companies that they surveyed were “extremely” or “very” happy with their jobs when they had access to free food. In 2018, Zerocater, a California-based foodservice company, found that number to be 75 percent with their survey. These clickbait findings continue to come from skewed data pools and researchers with massive conflicts of interest, so it’s easy to dismiss food as a productivity motivator. But the truth is a little more nuanced. 

A study by Gallup found that fringe perks like food and snacks do next to nothing for worker productivity if workers do not feel “actively connected” to their team. Generous food offerings are a great way to get people in the door initially, but feeding employees in the office should be a part of a broader engagement strategy and not a sole solution. That’s why leaving donuts in the breakroom did next to nothing in the old office setup. Hybrid offices, on the other hand, are better suited to facilitate that engagement strategy. 

Hybrid work has fundamentally changed the office from a cubicle farm to a space that fosters collaboration and a sense of community among co-workers. Knowing that you’ll be fed when you show up to work is certainly appreciated, especially during a period of wonky lunchtime economics, but indulgence is no substitute for engagement. Offices like Paul’s create a more engaged workforce by using food along with their extra space as a means to uphold that community ethos. In the hybrid office, food can certainly be more than just icing on the proverbial cake.

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