How does your team eat?

If you want to really understand a workplace, watch the way a team eats

By Malavika Varadan

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Published: Thu 16 Jun 2022, 6:44 PM

The family that eats together, stays together. And if you want to really understand a workplace, watch the way a team eats.

Have you ever walked into one of those fancy all-chrome-glass-and-metal offices, where important-looking people in jackets, with backs hunched over phones and worried looks on their faces, walk purposefully up and down corridors? I remember entering one such office a few years ago around their lunch break and what I saw stayed with me forever — a row of employees shoveling stale looking pre-packaged sandwiches into their mouths over a lit screen. No sharing. No talking. Just a hurried shoveling of something that resembled food. I vowed to myself that day that when I lead a team I would never let my office look like that!

Lunch time is an incredibly important time in your work day. It is when people set aside their designations and roles and responsibilities, and literally come to the table as just people.

If you watch the way a team eats, I think it says a lot about culture, hierarchy and how healthy the team dynamic is.

Lunch is a time when we have the opportunity to have non-transactional conversations.

It is when we share stories, about our children, about our families, about our human selves outside of work. It is where we truly build the foundations of the teams that work well together and it is where, I believe, the work really happens.

This lesson was taught to me by my former boss in radio. She is a woman who loved long lunches. While other team leaders would give long-lunchers dirty glares and imply that they better get back to their seats soon, she would do the opposite.

Out would come her lunch boxes, the bottles of pickle, the sides, all packed from home by her family. We would swarm around her like a hive of honey bees. Some standing, plastic spoons in hand, others digging into loaded plates. Over these lunches we would laugh, make jokes about each other that would turn into elaborate storylines only we would ever understand. We would discuss lives, love, heartbreak, kids and happenings around the world. An hour, sometimes 90 minutes later, it felt the ideas we started the day with were cemented, real, understood.

As someone who always had a hundred other gigs to manage, I would often complain. “Can we cut to the chase?” I would ask. “How about we make our points, solve the problem and get on with it?” Little did I know then that more work was done at that lunch table than was ever accomplished in a conference room.

In a creative industry, if you want high performers, innovation and fresh ideas every day, you need to first make your team feel safe. And the feeling of being among your own, the feeling of community and family — creating a space where you feel like you can take a risk and be rewarded for it comes not from cold conference rooms, but from large, warm lunches.

Leaders eat last, wrote Simon Sinek in his book. I would like to add to that. The best leaders eat with their team often and well. And the best companies should be looking as closely at how their pantries are designed as how their swanky conference rooms are built.

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