Snack On This: The Pros and Cons of Free Food at the Office

In an effort to save money, Sprint recently announced it was doing away with the free snacks it offers employees. But was this a good idea?

Given the stagnant state of wages in the United States, many organizations are turning to benefits as a key tool in their recruitment and retention efforts.

Yet, last week Sprint announced it was getting rid of a host of its benefits in an effort to cut costs, according to reports. Some of the more austere cuts include higher out-of-pocket healthcare costs, no raises this year, and an unnamed number of employees will be laid off.

To ensure the company meets its goal of cutting $2.5 billion of expenses, Sprint also announced it was getting rid of some ostensibly fluffy benefits, such as hired drivers for executives and snacks.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Sprint’s CEO Marcelo Claure began buying snacks for the company’s Overland Park, Kansas, headquarters earlier this year, and the perk was costing the company about $600,000 annually.

Some office snack advocates, however, are arguing that doing away with free food may not be such a good idea.

“They would never have given the snacks to begin with if they didn’t think it was helping boost productivity somehow,” Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the job-review website Glassdoor, told Bloomberg. (Bloomberg, by the way, is known for its well-stocked pantries that offer a variety of free snacks for employees.)

Only about 22 percent of companies offer free food and beverages to their employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Yet, studies have shown that this benefit can boost productivity. A 2011 study from office supply retailer Staples found that one-in-two office workers leaves work on a coffee or snack run at least once a day, with some people making up to five runs a day. All that foraging accounts for roughly $2.4 billion in lost productivity a year.

Even if the idea of people making five snack runs a day seems a bit unrealistic, there’s also the motivational aspect behind free food to consider.

“These small perks, they may be small in dollar amount, but they can be highly symbolic,” said Glassdoor’s Chamberlain. “They have this image as a gift; pulling it away can have a psychological effect that far outstrips the dollar amount.”

In a survey of more than 1,000 full-time office workers, online grocery delivery provider Peapod found that 66 percent of employees whose offices provide free snacks or beverages reported they are extremely or very happy with their jobs. Eighty-three percent said having healthy snack options—fruit, vegetables, yogurt, and low-calorie snacks—is a huge perk.

The same survey found that more respondents (55 percent) work in offices that provide free beverages as opposed to offices that provide free snacks (16 percent).

Like anything, though, there are downsides to free food. Bloomberg, for example, faced backlash after announcing, and then quickly recanting said announcement, that it would be installing surveillance cameras in the snack pantry of its Bloomberg BNA offices in DC.

At issue were concerns that employees were pilfering food from the pantry to take home. Understandably, employees were not thrilled with the idea of security cameras.

There are also costs associated with providing free food and drinks that many organizations may not be able to afford. One way to circumvent this obstacle is to offer food and drinks during staff meetings or to host a special event, such as Beer Fridays or a monthly catered breakfast, according to some HR experts.

Despite the potential downsides, offering free food, even if not on a regular, permanent basis, may be one of the “soft” perks, similar to allowing pets in the office, that organizations can use to retain and attract top talent.

Does your association offer snacks? Please share in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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