Does Lunch as a Benefit Actually Work?

The question is simple. Does Lunch as a Benefit (Laab) actually work? The answer is: it depends.

Assuming that your company doesn’t already offer a free daily lunch to your employees, the decision to provide this new benefit can be a challenging one. Quite naturally, you may wonder whether the benefit will have the desired impact. Will it help attract employees, improve their job satisfaction, cause them to stay, and increase their contributions to the company?

Ask yourself why your company offers benefits like health insurance and a 401(k)? Clearly, it does so partly because those benefits are standard and partly because they contribute to satisfying the desires of your employees. The goal is that those benefits will help your company attract talent and keep them working for your company. There is no doubt that benefits such as these work. That’s why they are so commonly offered.

Although it is starting to become expected, LaaB isn’t a standard benefit. That’s why offering LaaB means that you’re thinking in a new way about what it means to work at your company. You’re breaking the mold and differentiating your company from the competition.

But does LaaB work?

When LaaB Feels Like a Bribe

There is one situation when LaaB doesn’t work. That’s when it feels like a bribe. Bribes don’t have their desired effect because they’re short-sighted attempts at making employees happy by giving them incentives.

Employees can easily sniff out bribes like truffle hogs can sniff out truffles. Mixing metaphors here, employees instinctively know when you’re dangling a carrot in front of them and expecting them to run to get it. Pro tip: they don’t respond well to that tactic.

Employees don’t want to be incentivized to be happy. They’ll certainly take the bribe. Who wouldn’t want a free lunch? Still, when it feels like a bribe, the free lunch is less of a benefit and more of a perk. Consequently, it has a limited effect.

Perks such as flexible work schedules or telecommuting, help differentiate your company by going a step beyond the standard benefits package. With perks like these, you may intend to communicate that you appreciate them and want to make them happy. And, while those perks may be welcomed, and even contribute to employee happiness, they know that you really just want them to be more productive.

When LaaB Works

There’s nothing wrong with incentivizing employees to be happy. In fact, studies show that happier employees are more productive employees. Using randomized trials, the University of Warwick found that employee happiness led to a 12 percent spike in productivity, while unhappy workers were 10 percent less productive. The researchers stated that “human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”

But, there’s a catch.

Employee happiness only translates into increased productivity when the culture is healthy. This means that the cause of the happiness is what translates into increased productivity—not the happiness itself. The ultimate finding of the survey was that company leaders should strive to make their workplace emotionally healthy. That’s what really boosts productivity.

Understanding that productivity isn’t the only reason to offer benefits, this study proves the point that LaaB, just like the other benefits your company offers, works when it’s an integral part of your company’s healthy culture. Important aspects of a healthy corporate culture include valuing each employee regardless of their role and a nurturing environment that engages employees and supports camaraderie and teamwork. Happy employees who work in a culture such as this are more likely to stay with the company while contributing to the performance of the company.

Moreover, employers that offer LaaB are leveraging the power of food to engage employees. It’s been shown that eating food with coworkers leads to casual conversations that serve as the glue that bonds teams together. Taking this even further, when it set out to discover what makes teams effective, Google found that employees who eat together tend to form larger networks and improve their productivity when they rotated dining companions.

In short, when offered within a healthy culture, LaaB works because it provides a routine opportunity for employees to engage with each other in a comfortable setting where conversations are lubricated by food.