What office doesn’t have a kitchen in it? It’s inconceivable to design a modern office without a special room or corner that holds a refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot. And that is because of the universal human desire to share food in a communal setting. For millennia, human beings have gathered around food for nurturance, conversation and community. Sharing food at a common table is such a basic human need that scientists give it a fancy name: “commensality”. Commensality has been shown to bond people together and to create intimacy that can’t be achieved in any other way. The act of sharing food is so powerful that leaders should consider how to use food routines to embed and symbolize their corporate culture.
Usually when we think of building a positive company culture, we think of sharing noble ideas: values, vision, common purpose, goals, people policies and practices. These are intangible means to building a culture, appealing to team members’ hearts and mind. What about involving the physical body in symbols of a positive culture? If a leader really wants to embed a culture in team members, food is a vehicle to consider. Food ingested into the body becomes nutrition for cells, organs, bones and muscles. In addition, food is related in our experience to pleasure, nurturance, socialization and inclusion. In designing impactful routines that will bond a team and translate into symbols of the culture, food traditions are paramount.
Designing impactful food rituals
Although the word ritual is not a common business term, it is useful in describing repetitious, symbolic and evocative routines in company life. A ritual provides predictability, safety and community among employees. For example, some companies have rituals for celebrating holidays. At one company, they hold a potluck meal every month, in which the company provides the main course meat and a birthday cake. Everyone who had a birthday in the previous month is celebrated. Other companies have meeting rituals, such as sharing personal news or recent individual successes in a group meeting. Because the word ritual has a sacred overtone, it is an appropriate term to describe the routines that are most emblematic of company values and culture. Powerful corporate rituals need an aura of awe in order to be highly impactful.
In order for food to be emblematic in a corporate setting, it needs to be served and paid for by the company. Food served by management symbolizes nurturance and caring for employees. Serving the same food at a regularly scheduled event is a great way to ritualize food. The example previously mentioned of serving a birthday cake each month is a great routine. The cake evokes childhood delight, nurturance and fun. What person doesn’t want their birthday acknowledged? Food rituals should be repetitious, symbolic and emotionally evocative for maximum effect.
At one company that I know, management serves a particular drink at every quarterly meeting. Employees look forward to the meeting and even fight over who gets a particular drink flavor, which is served as they enter the auditorium. At an accounting firm, food is always ordered on Saturdays during busy season to acknowledge the extra (paid) hours that staff must work. At another company, lunch is served during monthly all-hands meetings. At still another, the division president holds a quarterly “Cookie Chat”, an all-hands meeting via webinar for his global team, and asks each location to serve cookies for all employees. Each of these rituals exemplify management’s caring for employees through food, which becomes embodied symbols of the organization.
The type and cost of the food is an important consideration. The guideline is to choose foods that represent the culture of the company. For example, a small but growing service company that values having a good time together serves inexpensive finger foods, such as candies and chips, at their monthly “Victory Lap” meeting, designed to celebrate the team’s accomplishments. It would be inappropriate for this company to serve a catered, expensive meal because that would set a stiff and formal tone. Instead, they wish to set more of a celebratory mood, so the food is harmonious with that intent. On the other hand, a successful financial services firm might wish to serve more expensive food to its employees at regularly held events, given the need for more formality in its culture.
There are some caveats about food rituals to ensure they don’t fail to achieve a well-meaning leader’s intent. First, there is an increasing prevalence of food intolerances, allergies and special diets in the workforce that preclude employees from eating certain foods. A good example of a problematic food is birthday cake, which would be off limits for both gluten-intolerant and milk-intolerant employees. Both my son and a good friend have serious food allergies and often feel excluded and devalued by their company when food is served that they cannot eat. Have you surveyed your employees for food allergies, gluten intolerance, vegan or vegetarian diets and provided alternatives that are acceptable? A truly caring manager or human resources department will track employee’s food restrictions and provide acceptable options at every event.
Also, be careful that food offerings do not become or are perceived as a bribe for future efforts. Food is best served as a celebration of past accomplishments, such as achieving a goal, celebrating a holiday or achieving a milestone (like a birthday or work anniversary). Food becomes a bribe when it is provided to motivate employees to work unreasonably long hours or achieve overly difficult goals. Because of the primal implications of serving food, any manipulative intent of serving food, whether conscious or not, will be amplified and readily apparent to employees. This approach to serving food will eventually backfire.
Given the ability of food to embody the culture of the company, can you afford to ignore the power of well-designed food rituals? I think not! Remembering that rituals are repetitious, symbolic and evocative, how can you create food rituals that embed the positive values of your company?
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