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What the office lunch hour will look like when we return to work

Expect big, pandemic-driven changes to corporate dining services and other perks when things reopen. Your beloved buffet? Gone. The microwave may be, too.

What the office lunch hour will look like when we return to work
[Photo: halbergman/Getty Images]

As states enter later phases of reopening and offices start to turn their lights back on, many changes are in the works to keep employees safe and minimize the transmission of COVID-19. One area in particular that’s undergoing an evolution is corporate dining. Gone may be the days of the grease-splattered communal microwave, heavily fingerprinted water cooler, and shared refrigerator where leftovers go to die. In their place, fresh protocols, setups, and technologies are helping companies adapt their corporate dining and food and beverage perks (like complimentary snacks and coffee) to a new, safer world—without losing the benefits that those things have long brought to workplaces.

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“People are happy when they’re eating great food and, historically, doing this with their coworkers,” says Warren Leeds, founder and CEO of Dartcor, a New Jersey-based corporate food service provider that works with companies like RGA and Verisk Analytics. Here’s how organizations around the country are adapting their programs while helping to preserve this hospitality, with the help of innovative culinary companies:

Breakroom and dining setups are evolving

The office breakroom still has a big role to play—now, it’s about reimagining that space to make it safe, yet still functional, says Alicia LeBeouf, senior vice president of marketing and retail strategy for Canteen, a Charlotte-based on-demand retail and food service company that works with Pinterest, UPS, and Target. “People want to hang out in a cafeteria and have that be their break, but we’re repositioning that,” she adds.

Canteen is currently transforming full-service corporate dining facilities into market-style setups, with grab-and-go food stations in place of the typical buffet where everyone touches the same salad tongs. A market concept eliminates high-touch areas and also helps promote social distancing, LeBeouf says, because picking up lunch will become a quicker ordeal (i.e., no lingering)—and also because fewer people will be in the space at one time. 

Fewer employees grabbing lunch at the same time is a matter of fewer employees in the office at once in general, as companies take extra precaution by opening workspaces in phases. Perkins and Will, a global design firm with 25 locations that works with companies such as American Express, launched an in-house app in June to track capacities in its respective offices to ensure proper social distancing. The app enables teams to set specific capacities for individual rooms, including the breakroom. Does that mean employees will soon have to schedule a time to pick up their PB&J from the fridge? “We haven’t gotten that far,” says Larry Kline, managing director of Perkins and Will’s Miami studio, “but we’re going to encourage people to have lunch at their desk.”

Amenities inside the breakroom are shifting, too. Canteen is transitioning previous offerings such as bulk-bin snacks into individually wrapped servings, and offering peeled and prepackaged fruit in exchange for whole pieces of fruit that can pick up germs. Then there’s the issue of all-important coffee. Options for contactless coffee machines are in the works for Canteen, including one that makes automatically whips up your order based on your selection in its mobile app (available now), another where you hover your finger over your choice (i.e., medium-size dark roast), and a voice-activated machine in development where you simply state your order, Amazon Alexa-style, into the machine: “light roast, one shot of espresso, small cup”—coming right up.

Dartcor has launched a new roaming coffee service option that’s like “a souped-up airline cart,” says Leeds. How it works: A nicely dressed hospitality concierge, wearing protective gear, pushes a cart stocked with coffee and all the accoutrements (Oatly, anyone?) plus healthy snacks throughout the office space, serving each person individually. “We have some clients who have ordered carts for each floor, as coffee is a big part of their culture,” Leeds adds. For example, Teva Pharmaceuticals will debut an office coffee cart the first week of July.

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In addition to the usual food and drink, companies are adding increased sanitation features to breakrooms. Rising Realty Partners, which manages the five million square feet of office space including the historic Trust Building in downtown Los Angeles (home to Rising’s headquarters and architecture firm KTGY), has set up sanitary stations—including hand sanitizer and plastic gloves—throughout common areas of the buildings it manages, including three in its own kitchen area. They’ve also eliminated all communal food (no more coffee creamer or ketchup) from the fridge, and are wrapping fridge handles and cabinet pulls in NanoSeptic surface covers, which continuously disinfect high-touch surfaces.

Transforming the experience

Keeping employees safe isn’t only about changing the function and layout of the office spaces they frequent; it’s also about altering the experience. At Jaguar-Land Rover’s North American headquarters in New Jersey, one of Dartcor’s clients, the on-site kitchen is being used to produce food for orders placed by employees through an online platform. Each order is assigned a designated pick-up time to prevent having too many people in and out during busy times, such as the noon lunch hour. So far, with the office not running at full capacity, it’s manageable, says Leeds—but looking ahead, companies will need to manage employees’ expectations by communicating upfront about ordering in advance (i.e., it might not be feasible to order lunch for 10 for pickup in 20 minutes).

Individual lunch orders and encouraging deskside eating, such as the firm Perkins and Will is doing, don’t have the same benefits as breaking bread together. “It’s a huge behavioral change. Food and hospitality were helping to drive connectivity and engagement in a lot of companies, no question about it,” says Leeds, who notes that the company often was dealing with C-level executives on decisions—because food mattered that much. 

Not all communal dining options are out the window; they may be, however, outside. Perkins and Will is transforming its Miami studio’s garage rooftop into an alfresco shaded dining space, allowing employees to safely eat together while social distancing in the open air.

The food options themselves are changing as a result of the pandemic, as well. Dartcor has revamped its menus to include more nutrient-dense, immunity-boosting offerings, such as a quinoa-and-kale breakfast bowls and roasted-carrot-and-sweet-potato salad. For meetings, it will offer customized Bento boxes to eliminate the need for buffet-style dishing up. 

Looking ahead, the move toward sustainability in office dining may slide back, at least for a while. Companies like Rising Realty are encouraging employees to bring their own cutlery, dishes and mugs, but LeBeouf says we’re likely to see more prepackaged items—including single-use cutlery, cups and plates—for sanitary reasons as people return to work.

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Work-from-home perks

Even those who aren’t returning to offices yet have been getting to enjoy some of the traditional dining perks that big technology companies and startups are known for. Freshly, a chef-inspired healthy meal delivery service based in New York City, launched a new division in April to help businesses continue to drive value for their employees. 

“We started having businesses reach out to us [for help addressing] a new challenge: how to provide perks to their employees working from home,” says Freshly founder and CEO Michael Wystrach. “[Companies that had] traditionally provided snacks, or a full lunch or dinner, wanted to carry those perks to employees in their homes.” Now, Freshly for Business is working with companies such as Nestlé, Eaton, and Rippling to deliver premade, individually packaged meals that you can heat and eat. Its tiered program offers a fully subsidized and partially subsidized options. Canteen has also been doing custom snack boxes with items from chips to protein bars to coffee that are sent to employees’ homes every week. 

When the time comes to transition back to the physical workplace, new offerings are helping companies ease the adjustment for their employees, as well. For example, Dartcor, through its comprehensive Fresh Start program, has employee welcome kits, which comprise a custom-branded tote filled with face masks, hand sanitizer, a contactless touch tool (for opening doors), and a fresh-baked cookie. The bags can be customized, too: Financial Technology Partners opted to also include ground coffee, tea, snacks, a pen and screen cleaner, along with company-branded masks, coasters, and mugs. 

So how much will all of these changes cost companies in the long run? Perhaps not as much as they think. If a company has historically spent a lot of money on dining and food perks but doesn’t have its office operating at full capacity yet, they might have budget to cut down in one area (say, reducing corporate dining hours) and invest in other equipment, or subsidizing employees’ meals. 

“When people get together, good things happen,” Leeds adds. “It’s on companies to make their associates feel safe and welcome—and it’s really about reallocating and reprioritizing what’s important.”

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