It’s safe to assume a majority of us have never operated an office during a global pandemic. There is no formal checklist, no official guidebook. And every company, every office, every workplace, is different.
Giant snack walls, weekly team lunches, company celebrations. Food connects people at work. Pre-COVID-19, many companies used food as a perk. Now, food for work is a matter of safety. “Keeping employees safe is a key priority as we reopen our office,” said Alyssa Lahar, chief human resources officer at ZoomInfo, a market intelligence company. “Maintaining our culture is crucial too, and food plays a big part in it.”
Changing office food
Sadly, the days of gummy bear jars and leftover birthday cake in the office kitchen are on hold for the foreseeable future. It’s not the end of office snacks, but they certainly won’t look the same.
If your office provides snacks, they need to be individually packaged. Shared items such a candy jars, cereal boxes, and containers of nuts should be removed for the safety of all workers. Think small bags of chips, cookies, and candy, displayed so employees can easily pick one up without touching several others. Offering fewer varieties can stop people from grabbing several items in search of that certain one.
Companies may shut down high-touch items such as coffee makers and watercoolers and instead ask employees to bring beverages from home. The CDC recommends that employers “encourage staff to bring their own water to minimize use and touching of water fountains, or consider installing no-touch activation methods for water fountains.” Provide plenty of cleaning supplies and post signage reminding employees to sanitize all shared appliances after each use.
For companies that do make coffee available, milk and other fixings should be individually packaged. Lisa Herron, a project and events manager at the bedding company Tempur Sealy in Dallas, ordered individually wrapped coffee stirrers when their office reopened in May, since their employees would naturally “reach into the cup of coffee stirrers to get one and touch three others.”
Whether you have a simple break room or decked-out kitchens on every floor, outfit them with disposable sanitizing wipes for hard surfaces, as well as pre-wrapped and disposable dishes and utensils.
New rules for meal pick-up
During the pandemic, safe access to meals at work is a matter of health, risk reduction, and efficient operation. “In high-rise buildings, we are moving toward more touchless food deliveries throughout the building, so tenants don’t have to leave the office or get on an elevator to get lunch,” says Tom Larance, head of experience management at real estate firm JLL. “Avoiding bottleneck areas like elevators or building entrances, especially during the typically high volume period of lunchtime, will be key.”
Employees who venture out for lunch face long waits for reduced-capacity elevators and potential exposure at crowded restaurants. “New protocols make the time it takes to get from the lobby to individual floors significantly longer than normal,” says Larance. “This is one reason our clients are searching for ways to allow employees to stay in the building during lunchtime. This will be even more critical when occupancy levels increase beyond what they are currently.”
Of course, for those who do leave for lunch, they should practice social distancing and the same safety protocols for entering their office buildings in the morning. When possible, use one door for entering and another for exiting, to control the flow of traffic.
Furthermore, recommend that your employees have food delivered and combine orders into a single delivery when possible. Boxed lunches and other individually packaged meals are ideal for social distancing; people can quickly grab and go and avoid using the same utensils from the kitchen. Make sure meals come clearly labeled, so no one has to open up the package to see what’s inside. “We provide individually packaged lunches for our essential employees five days a week to thank them and keep them safe,” says Elizabeth Wilkie, executive administrative assistant at Resurgent Capital Services. “Meals are consolidated into one delivery at a designated place and time, so there is less traffic in and out of the office. Plus, we’re wasting less food and money by only ordering for those that come in the office that day.”
Employees, if you’re bringing and storing your own lunch, be mindful of your surroundings. Kitchens are one of the most high-traffic places in the office and are home to many high-touch surfaces, such as refrigerators and microwaves. Again, employers, provide ample cleaning supplies and signage with reminders to sanitize between uses.
When to break bread
Though it is obvious, it bears repeating: Eating creates contact between your hands and your mouth—so it’s essential to make sure your hands are clean. Post guidelines for handwashing at all office sinks to remind everyone to thoroughly wash their hands often throughout the day.
You can’t eat or drink while wearing a mask, so social distancing in common eating areas is critical. Many companies are staggering lunchtimes so fewer employees use break rooms, kitchens, or other eating areas simultaneously. Others are closing their common areas entirely and requiring employees to eat at their desks. If your common spaces remain open, remove or cover chairs to maintain social distancing. No matter what, keep eating spaces clean. The CDC recommends that you clean and disinfect eating spaces between each use, or at least every two hours.
Considering all that has changed this year, maintaining your corporate culture can feel like a necessity of its own. Get creative in how you connect employees while keeping them safe. Virtual lunch hours, coffee breaks, and even happy hours are great ways to stay connected while incorporating food. Take it to the next level by sending lunch to each member of your team and eating together virtually. For special celebrations, such as birthdays or baby showers, consider sending treats to the guest of honor.
Along with a positive work culture, a safe workplace helps keep your employees healthy and happy. It will be some time before we can all reach for a morning doughnut or plunge our hands into a jar of M&M’s, but you can still show your employees you care and they deserve a treat (albeit, at a distance and individually wrapped).
Diane Swint is the head of marketplace at ezCater, where she leads the customer experience and demand teams, and helps companies of all sizes find smart food solutions for work. She has over 20 years of experience at tech-enabled marketplaces.