Is free food a motivator for employee attraction and retention?

Offering a range of free food items is definitely something that has flown over from American shores to many European subsidiaries and beyond. In some cases because office campuses were built in remote areas, having access to lunchtime restaurants and convenience stores were not available and created the need to feed employees. In urban environments, however, the move to provides free food is more used as a motivational tool to attract and retain employees with the food becoming a benefit of employment.

Many companies even in the UK and the rest of Europe have had on-site canteens for years, but most have a payment or employee discount system. The canteen traditionally allowed for short lunch breaks in factory settings to be adhered to and provided an opportunity for colleagues to socialise. This is still the case in most office eating areas. It is an efficient way to keep employees close to the workplace and keep productivity higher and often started out of necessity. It is in the US where providing all the food for free became more engrained especially in the technology sector with the likes of Google leading the way.

The free food and snack trend facilitates food on the go which tends to work hand in hand with cultures where flexible working hours are expected and often long hours are implied too. Google has been listed at the top spot of being a great place to work for some time and the facilities, food etc are often quoted spontaneously in surveys.

From a practical perspective, providing a place for your people keeps them in-house and get’s them back to work quicker than if they have to step out and find food. In some culture bringing lunch that you prepared at home has been the rule and if you are on a budget it is a great way to keep your expenditure down. Providing a space to eat and take a break I think is a minimum and in some EU countries also a part of employment law.

So is food motivational?

The answer is more nuanced, some people are indeed motivated by food, but not everyone. Having enough disposable income to buy lunch or make a lunch box to bring into work is another factor. In many of the Sillicon Valley offices, wages are not the highest and not sufficient for people to afford housing and food. So in those cases where wages are not enough, food becomes an essential benefit of taking one job over another. Think of it as a basic motivator of food and shelter in a Maslow pyramid for the latter group.

When people have enough disposable income as well as food outlets nearby the company in their budget range, that is when you will see if they are truly motivated by the company provided food.

As a coeliac, finding food I can eat without getting ill is sometimes a mission and a half, so the ease of a chef that knows and understands is a peace of mind decision and for one of my jobs, it made me a regular fan of the canteen. In other places, the free food was limited to sandwiches which typically were not gluten-free and they still forced me out or to live on the free fruit provided.

If your people quote and praise the free food on offer regularly in your employee surveys and it is what sways someone to take your offer over that of other, then you know you have found some food motivated team members. If it is a source of complaints, then explore options. In one company the management team consulted staff and let staff set the menu, which became healthy quick options. In another organisation where there were plenty great food options close by, the employees voted to keep the space for if they wanted to eat their own lunch or something they bought in a convenience store, plus a vending machine for late workers, but they didn’t want a catered canteen.

Depending on the culture and habits, you will find nuances across Europe. In many places, lunch is a social opportunity in others a necessary evil and a dreaded social experiment with people opting to be alone.

How do you get it right?

The key to determining if free food will work for your company is to, first of all, observe behaviours. Know what your staff does for lunch right now, then practically look at the available options. With plenty of good value and good quality outlets close by, maybe food is not an additional perceived benefit. If the options are limited, you may have an opportunity to explore it. I would, in that case, suggest to bring your people in on the decision making and co-create the ideal solution.

Having the right mix of options and selections that appeal to as many as possible is a hard balance to achieve. From a cost-benefit perspective, it may save time and increase social interaction provided mobile phone don’t cloud that. On occasion, people see an increase in employee engagement as measured in their surveys. It is not a given that free food will fix deeper employee engagement problems though, so if that is your reason for an introduction of freebies, think again!

Either way, be creative and explore with your people what kind of free food works as a motivator and what doesn’t or if it does at all. Don’t take it for granted and assume.

When employee retention is not a linear thing

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