People who work for Silicon Valley tech companies get ridiculously nice perks—chief among them, their own gourmet cafeterias. Google, Apple, Facebook, and many others have eateries where coworkers share meals. Of course, this costs companies money, so a workplace cafeteria may not seem worth it if you’re not a tech giant with loads of money. But new research suggests that tech companies might actually be onto something big: a recent study from Cornell University found that having your employees eat together could be incredibly valuable—it may help them perform better as a team.
For obvious reasons, every company wants its staff to be a strong team. That’s part of the motivation behind those awkward group activities that you’re forced to suffer through, like office parties and retreats and ropes courses—they're supposed to be good for team bonding. But those activities aren’t a natural part of the workday, and it takes effort to participate in them (and it can feel like a waste of your time). Kevin Kniffin, an assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Cornell University wanted to know whether something people do every single day—eating—could be used to boost team performance instead. "A lot of companies show intuition about the positive benefits of worksite eating," he says, "We’re trying to quantify those intangible benefits."
To explore this question, Kniffin and his team studied a workplace where people eat together daily: firehouses. Over 15 months, they surveyed firefighters in a large U.S. city about their eating culture. The researchers first did on-site interviews at 13 firehouses, then asked 244 fire department officers to answer questions about firehouse eating habits, as well as their platoon’s team performance. They also asked officers about other potentially influential factors, like the size of the firehouse and how many alarm calls it receives.
When the researchers analyzed the officers’ responses, they found that groups who ate together more often tended to perform better together. At firehouses, this meant a difference in team performance between firefighters who ate together everyday, compared to those who only ate together some days or not at all. Kniffin points out that his study only showed a correlation, although the researchers did control for other variables like the number of alarm calls. "Their results were intriguing," says Seth Kaplan, an associate professor of industrial organizational psychology at George Mason University, who wasn’t involved in the study. "But you can’t make the statement yet that eating together leads to better team performance."
If future studies show the effect is real, researchers will also need to figure out the mechanism behind it. Kniffin’s study didn’t go into this, but he has some ideas about why eating together may benefit teamwork. "Eating together is more intimate than coworkers working on a Google doc or an Excel spreadsheet," he explained. "That intimacy may spill over to other activities—in this case, work. Presumably there’s some positive bonding that comes about from that."
Kniffin also recognizes that a firehouse is vastly different from the typical office, and it’s unclear yet whether his results will translate to a workplace where people sit in front of computers today, rather than fight fires. But he believes that the effect could extend to other work environments, and future studies should look at different industries. "These research findings definitely warrant closer attention to the possible positive influences eating together in any workplace," he says. Kaplan thinks it’s possible that benefits of sharing a meal together could be even greater in the average workplace than in a firehouse. "Firefighters train together all the time, and they probably already trust each other," he says. "Maybe you could move the needle more with companies and teams that don’t do as much training together."
This doesn’t mean that companies should give up their office parties and retreats altogether, but cafeterias may offer an advantage over other team-building activities. Both Kniffin and Kaplan point out that those other activities tend to be artificial and forced, whereas lunch is part of everyone’s day. "What you find in studies is that when you ask people to do more work—like go to a holiday party—if anything, people react negatively," says Kaplan. "It’s important to create opportunities that fit into people’s daily routine." So while Google’s and Apple’s cafeterias might seem like a luxury to other companies, they may actually be a practical and easy way to get people to work well as a team. And who knows? Maybe they’re part of the reason why those companies are such a huge success.