"One cannot think well, if one has not dined well," said Virginia Woolf, and today her aphorism has found a scientific basis in a Cornell University study, according to which food acts as a kind of social glue, thus serving as a key element of effective team building. "Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work,” said Kevin Kniffin, Professor of Economics at Charles H. Dyson Cornell University and author of the study that analyses the relationship between shared meals and effective team performance. Conducted over fifteen months in over 50 fire stations, the study compared the performance of platoons who share meals with those of platoons who eat alone, noting much worse results in the latter case. According to Cornell researchers, this trend can be extended to all organisations, including companies.
Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work.
"From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces," continued Mr Kniffin. "Our study reveals that sharing meals favours the tendency to collaborate, thereby promoting teamwork. Eating together is a way to get to know others better and strengthen relationships between members of a group."
The fire fighters interviewed stated that eating together was a central part of their daily activities. Some fire fighters who worked a shift that started at 6 p.m. often ate two dinners, "one at home, to spend time with their wife and children, and a second at the firehouse," continued Mr Kniffin. "To me, that’s a good example of the importance of eating with the group. It’s a ritual comparable to that of eating with their family,” so much so that the exception is represented by platoons who eat alone. "During the study, we noticed that not sharing meal times was a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked, something that was then reflected in the team's performance." In short, eating alone makes you less efficient.
More and more people eat in the office, and it is a well established fact that meals are a key element of socialisation.
For this reason, according to Kniffin, organizations would do better to consider their expenditures on cafeterias as investments in employee performance, offering spaces where colleagues can share mealtimes. "Data shows that this generates economic benefits, and that employers should encourage shared meals, to increase employee collaboration and company performance".
Thus "making it up before a glass of wine" could have a whole new meaning, becoming an effective means of improving company performance. In Italy, this trend is being welcomed with open arms. While, until recently, Google's bar for employees seemed an unattainable perk, like a company gym or a relaxation area, today it is no longer just big companies that are focussing on food. In Milan, more and more co-working establishments are offering spaces in bars or restaurants as a convivial alternative to the more traditional meeting rooms.
At Barra A, one of Milan's designer co-working space situated in a disused old garage, a soundproofed glass door separates the area where startuppers and freelancers work on their computers, from Upcycle, a Northern European style café featuring long wooden tables, where patrons, whether co-workers and otherwise, can stop for a coffee or a meal. The same can be said of Open, right in the centre of the city, where a cosy library bar also offers a large area with offices and desks to rent, once again separated by rigorously soundproofed glass. Santeria was one of the first establishments to launch the idea of combining co-working and catering. Here, a flight of stairs separates the twenty work stations and the bar-cum-restaurant. "This is an additional service that meets with considerable success", explained Andrea Pontiroli, founder of Santeria. "It offers the opportunity to meet different people, to build relationships with other co-workers, and offers a new convivial dimension for those who want to hold business meetings in a more relaxed, less formal environment." A space, in short, where sociability is encouraged. Where an actual bar is lacking, a kitchen acts as the place of encounter in which to build relationships. Impact Hub Milano offers those who rent desks and offices a fully fledged kitchen where the "hubbers" gather once a month for a Soul Salad, a shared lunch during which everyone helps to cook, eats together and gets to know new co-working members.
But shared lunches are not just the prerogative of startups, innovative companies and co-working spaces. The employees of traditional companies are increasingly eating together, ordering meals that are delivered directly to the office. This is confirmed by the Just Eat Observatory, which in 2017 registered a +137% increase in orders for delivered lunches in 15 Italian cities. The category that eats together most is that formed by employees (41%), followed by students (33%) and freelancers (18%). The food most in demand is Japanese sushi, which is very often shared among colleagues, while the industry most passionate about digital food delivery is the health sector. Online lunches are most frequently ordered by millennials (aged 26-35), while the cities where this trend has taken hold are Milan, Bologna and Rome.
The trend of eating together in the office has become so widespread as to have given birth to a new business model, namely Foorban, the first fully digital Italian restaurant, halfway between a kitchen and a logistics company. Lunch is ordered online or via an app, and is delivered within 20 minutes of ordering.
As for physical restaurants, those too are starting to show their face within companies, primarily in the new headquarters of Amazon, where the company's employees can savour the dishes of the day cooked by the Foorban chefs. "The idea is simple: more and more people eat in the office, and it is a well established fact that meals are a key element of socialisation," said Stefano Cavaleri, CEO of Foorban. "That's why we offer discounts and special agreements for anyone who places an order for more than three people. We have also entered into agreements with various companies, who offer our dishes as employee benefits, and we are experimenting with weekly team building lunches." Confirming that there is no better place to build a team than around a food-packed table.