The Power of Eating Together

Eating together is a seemingly small, mundane act. After all, it’s just two or more people sitting down and eating a meal. But in reality, eating together can be very significant. When people share the same space to have a meal, it’s a strong unifier that builds a place of community.

Families may not realize this, but when they sit down for a meal, they’re reinforcing familial bonds. They’re creating a safe space in which they can share their daily experiences as well as their most intimate thoughts and feelings.

In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier says that enjoying food together is a basic human expression of friendship, pleasure, and community. Also, the act has the power to create bonds between people who may have never socialized otherwise.

Nearly everyone who’s worked in a corporate environment has had a manager believes that it is important to engage their team and create bonds between the people on that team. To do this, managers have their people participate in team-building exercises. Whether it be a rope course, a trust fall, or some sort of game playing, the goal is to motivate employees to become trusted friends.

Unfortunately, most of those efforts fall short or are even mocked as a misguided attempt to force intimacy between coworkers. Even though they are well-intended, most team-building exercises fail to leverage true feelings of trust and community that should emerge organically.

Of course, every manager wants to build a more cohesive team that works together seamlessly to reach the overarching objectives of the company. It’s just that mandatory team-building exercises are not the way to go.

Bringing the family feeling to work

So, how does a manager transform their team by bringing the family feeling to the workplace? According to researchers at Cornell University, the answer to encourage employees to eat lunch together.

Lunch is one of the few times of the day where people are happy to put aside their work and relax with coworkers. It’s also one of the few times that people form different teams or silos get to share the same space.

The Cornell study looked closely at the eating habits of professional firefighters. What is found was that eating together facilitates greater collaboration among co-workers who might otherwise not talk with each other except when they break for eating.

The researchers reached the conclusion that eating together fosters collaboration by visiting 13 firehouses and surveying 395 firefighters to see how they use food in their firehouse. The study revealed that firefighters had created a social norm of eating together. This single, often mundane act turned out to be central to keeping their teams operating effectively. As expected, they reported that they feel more like a family.

According to those interviewed, this familial atmosphere supports a direct correlation between eating together and cooperative behavior. Not surprisingly, cooperative behavior was about twice as high among those who ate with one another than among those who didn’t.

How to start eating together—and growing

The Cornell study supports the growing trend of companies investing in providing lunch for their employees. By offering free food, they’re increasing the chances that coworkers, and those from various departments, eat together.

And, it’s not necessary to have a large cafeteria. A breakroom or empty conference room will suffice. Eating outside is another option. It also helps to make the effort to create family-style eating opportunities. The familial atmosphere is what makes holiday parties, birthday celebrations, or other employee appreciation activities more impactful.

Executives at companies who desire to create a more collaborative environment have something to learn from firefighters. Do away with the manufactured and trite team-building exercises and provide the opportunity for employees to eat together.