Free snacks or even meals at the office can have a positive effect on the way that people collaborate or feel about their employer, but it can come with some big downsides if not done the right way.
The office food game has changed significantly in recent years.
Back in 2015, Sprint said that it was getting rid of its free snacks to cut costs—a move that actually bucked a much larger trend in favor of getting more food in the office. The Society for Human Resource Management, in its most recent forecast [PDF], found that 32 percent of companies offer free snacks and beverages, while 12 percent offer a cafeteria that’s at least partially subsidized by the company.
Major tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, have become famous for actually giving their employees free food, something that Silicon Valley employees say has a “transformative effect” on teams in a way that free drinks alone might not.
But it also means employees are less likely to leave the office, which critics say takes away business from local restaurants. It’s become such a problem that cities in the Northern California region, including Mountain View and San Francisco, have attempted banning free office food in an effort to get corporate employees to go outside every once in a while.
But, no matter where you stand, there are pros and cons to free food at the office. A look at a few:
Pro: It’s a major driver of collaboration. As a 2015 Forbes piece explains, Google—which has perhaps defined the free-food-at-work ethos more than any other company—doesn’t just do it to keep people on campus, but because it wants to encourage natural collaboration. Citing a book by former Google Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock, the food is strategically placed in a way to get people to interact together who wouldn’t usually do so. “At minimum, they might have a great conversation,” Bock explains. “And maybe they’ll hit on an idea for our users that hasn’t been thought of yet.”
Pro: It can make employees happier. A 2015 study from the grocery company Peapod found that 56 percent of employees were either “extremely” or “very” happy with their jobs—but that number surged to 67 percent for people who worked at companies that offered free snacks of some kind. Another 48 percent said they would weigh a job decision based on whether or not a company offers free snacks.
Con: It encourages absent-minded eating. A CNBC report from earlier this year noted that there’s a tendency for people to snack on things when they’re procrastinating or when they’re talking to other people, without even realizing it. Dietician Julie Devinsky of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital told the outlet that many people don’t think a snack here or there is cheating, even though it is. “Part of it is getting people to understand that free office food does not mean free calories, and if you didn’t buy cake today that doesn’t mean you didn’t eat cake today,” Devinsky said.
Con: It can be really unhealthy. A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found earlier this year that office noshing can add 1,300 calories per week to the average person’s diet, with much of that food being given away for free. The free food, according to the report, mostly included items like sodas, sandwiches, and cookies, which tend to be high in sugar, refined grains, and salt.
Con: It can get costly. Before Yahoo was subsumed by Verizon in a deal last year, Yahoo’s food habits had a tendency to get negative attention, such as when the company put on a holiday party that cost millions—an activist investor claimed $7 million, but then-CEO Marissa Mayer claimed $2 million. But the real eye-popping bill was on food: Mayer said the company spent $150 million per year on free food, refuting a claim that it cost $450 million.
Do you offer your employees free drinks, snacks, or meals? Let us know how it’s going in the comments.