Much has changed since Google earned a reputation for fattening its staffers with food on demand. These days, the company is focused on advancing its healthy-eating initiatives. Explains Jennifer Kurkoski, who has a PhD in organizational behavior and runs a division of Google's HR department called People Analytics, "When employees are healthy, they're happy. When they're happy, they're innovative." In pursuit of that healthiness, happiness, and innovation, Google has turned to "nudges": simple, subtle cues that prompt people to make better decisions. Behavioral economists have shown the idea works, but Google has taken it out of the lab and into the lunchroom. This is a sampling of the encouragement you'd get during trips through the company's eateries—and naturally, Google is measuring the results.
No longer are M&Ms in clear hanging dispensers. If you're in Google's New York office, you now have to reach into opaque bins. The grab takes effort; the obscuring vessel quells enticement. The switch led to a 9% drop in caloric intake from candy in just one week.
Waiting for you as you enter the cafeteria is the salad bar. According to Jessica Wisdom, a member of the People Analytics team, studies show that people tend to fill their plates with whatever they see first. Thus, leafy greens get the most visible real estate. Desserts, meanwhile, are down another line of sight.
While grabbing a plate to load up on grub, you see a sign informing you that people with bigger dishes are inclined to eat more. It doesn't tell you what to do, but it affects your behavior. This simple "meta nudge" caused small-plate usage to increase by half, to 32% of all plate traffic.
Harvard recently revamped its food pyramid, and those lessons in metered portions have translated into a colored-tag system in the cafeterias. You see green labels paired with veggies, giving you liberty to dig in. Most desserts have red ones, warning potential gluttons to proceed in moderation.
So you've had a bad day, and even a glaring red tag isn't enough to discourage you from indulging in a treat. Fortunately, desserts are designed to be downed in just three bites. By making people think about having to take a second dessert plate, Google is nixing potential binges.
You're back at your desk and thirst is setting in. You head to the kitchen. In the past, water was on tap and soda was in the fridge. Now bottled water is at eye level in the cooler, while soda has been moved to the bottom. That shift in placement increased water intake by 47%, while calories from drinks fell by 7%. Taking a sip of agua, you feel better already.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.