- Tech & Gadgets
- BRW. lounge
Published 30 July 2012 05:45, Updated 01 August 2012 22:36
Food for thought ... The dining room of Google’s Australian head office in Sydney’s Pyrmont. Photo: Louie Douvis
What’s for lunch? For most of us, it will be something munched over a warm keyboard … and for some employers, that’s the way they like it.
Health experts keep telling us that we must stop working for lunch. We should take a breather, socialise, have a change of scenery or go for a walk. But the unspoken message we get from our managers is “Keep going, I’m paying for your time”.
They project that message by staying at their desks themselves, leading by example. The organisation broadcasts it by making communal eating areas unattractive or unsuitable.
Some organisations, however, believe in lunch. They have taken the leap of faith that the socialising that people do over a meal brings more benefits than an extra hour in harness at the desk.
As much as Google is overused as an example in workplace culture discussions, the IT giant has put a great deal of thought into its cafeterias – to the extent that it has deliberately placed its tables a little too close together, so that people will bump into each other as they try to get past with their trays of (free) food.
Given that most Google employees are happy to work in T-shirts, a little spillage won’t worry them, and a bump, “sorry”, “No, I’m sorry”, might get two people talking.
It is well understood in the company that innovation often stems from putting two disparate things together to create something new. So a conversation starting up between two intelligent people who don’t know each other could well result in a collaboration.
Google even goes further by measuring the length of the lines at its cafeteria counters. Two long, and impatient programmers will wander off. Too short, and there won’t be enough time for conversation.
Boston-based organisational design consultancy, Sociometric Solutions, recently publicised research showing that larger lunch tables make workers happier and more productive. Again, there is the potential for collaboration and swapping information (perhaps, avoiding the time-sink of a meeting later on).
It also helps people to get to know each other, which makes work a friendlier place to be.
CEO of the company, Ben Waber, told CNN that tweaking arrangements, such as allowing departments to all take lunch at the same time or moving coffee stations, could improve morale by as much as 25 per cent.
Researching with scientists at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University, Waber uses information gathered through mobile phones, email and work ID badges to track what we do and when we do it.
Using this technique, called “reality mining”, Waber was able to help a pharmaceutical company which provided “awful coffee” in areas where there was no seating.
“In general, when we look at what makes people happy and effective at work, it’s being able to spend time with a close group of people, Waber recently told The New York Times.
“You need to structure work in such a way that people have those opportunities.”
Waber convinced the company to provide one central communal area with lots of seating – and improved the coffee – and people began mingling with a wide range of co-workers.
Another client, a bank, had been staggering lunch hours at its call centres so that not too many people in a team would be away from the phones at once. And, while this seemed like a sensible way to go, when those not at lunch needed to let off steam there were not enough people around that they knew well enough to “vent” to.
Waber suggested bringing in an alternate team to fill in, and claimed a 25 per cent increase in the number of calls answered and a reduction in stress levels.
Of course, not everyone is an extrovert, and some people do need solitude in order to recharge their batteries. In a world where “collaboration is king”, these lone wolves will have to become more determined in their search for a quiet corner.
With any luck, they will not be working at BHP, where eating at the desk is “verboten”, according to the clean desk policy.