Does Incentivizing Employees With Free Food Actually Work?

Google does it. So does Facebook and Twitter. Are free snacks and drinks making our workplaces better--or more fattening?

A couple of centuries ago, women were taught the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. In today’s world this dating advice seems overtly old-fashioned, but the theory could partially hold true for companies wanting to retain employees.

According to a recent WorkSphere survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the staffing agency Spherion, if you want a happy worker, then feed them. Around 30% of respondents said the availability of food throughout the day contributes to their workplace happiness.

Whether you offer free cookies in the break room, doughnuts at meetings, or--following the lead of Google, Facebook, and Twitter--provide full-blown meals prepared by a company chef, smart companies should give the idea some thought, but understand that free food doesn’t necessarily equal a more productive staff. It’s more complicated than that, say experts.

“With examples like Google, we’re constantly reminded of the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma,” says Frank Bosco, assistant professor of management in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business in Richmond, Virginia. “That is--is Google successful because they offer all sorts of perks, resulting in better-performing employees? Or, do they offer free food because they’ve been so successful over the years?”

Full Belly, Happy Heart?

Bosco says it’s tempting to believe that free food affects performance, but there isn’t solid research that the tactic alone produces long-lasting results. “Free food is highly appreciated--we can be certain about that much,” he says. “However, what remains to be demonstrated empirically is that the perk actually has an impact on important employee outcomes.”

A 2013 State of the American Workplace study by Gallup found that flexible hours increases employee happiness more than free lunch at the office; however, employee happiness isn’t the driver of company success.

The study also found that indulging employees is no substitute for engaging them. “Gallup research shows that while keeping employees happy or satisfied is a worthy goal that can help build a more positive workplace, simply measuring workers’ satisfaction or happiness levels is insufficient to create sustainable change, retain top performers, and positively affect the bottom line,” the report reads.

“Satisfied or happy employees are not necessarily engaged employees . . . . At the end of the day, an intrinsic connection to one’s work and one’s company is what truly drives performance, inspires discretionary effort, and improves well-being. If these basic needs are not fulfilled, then even the most extravagant perks will be little more than window dressing.”

“So while pizza every Friday is a great perk, it will likely not change the overall satisfaction of an employee if basic needs are not met first,” says Steve Moore, director of human resource operations at Insperity, an HR service provider.

For an employer’s greatest return on investment, treats should come with a greater purpose in mind, says Moore. “For example, offering pizza or snacks to grab from the lounge anytime is a certainly a perk for employees, but a defined time for a pizza party will give employers much greater ROI by building up company culture and encouraging team building.”

Work Perks--Or Bribes?

If a company’s culture is not healthy, then the offerings the company provides its employees, such as food, day care, or concierge services, run the risk of being viewed as bribes versus perks, says Greg Bustin, author of Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill; 2014).

“It’s likely that those extras will be viewed by employees as superficial and not addressing the foundational issues of trust, honesty, respect, and achievement,” he says. “Conversely, when a company’s culture is healthy, those extras can be a difference in driving productivity and maintaining retention.”

Bustin says companies that will do little things for employees are likely already doing the big things for them, such as articulating an exciting vision, mapping career paths, providing real-time feedback and mentoring, and creating an environment of high performance.

“These are the attributes that make these types of companies a 'Best Places to Work' company where people want to show up for their job and accomplish great things,” he says.

Free food? It’s just the icing on the cake.

[Photo: Flickr user Magnus D]

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1 Comments

  • Stephanie! Great piece. It caught my eye-- maybe because it's almost lunchtime. While it sounds like free food can't be linked directly to financial success, it does provide a sense of community and a degree of convenience in addition to making employees happier (and sometimes chubbier.) To complement eating together, I'm seeing a number of firms offer ways to sweat together. Conference room yoga and step/stair challenges are ramping up.