I have always thought that the reason places like Google catered food was because it was a nice perk for the employees. A year ago I would have never thought that I would be advocating this practice for all start-ups. So how did I change my mind? Let me tell the story.

Not all that many months ago we were working towards a deadline (for those of you new to this blog I work at a phenomenal startup, Delve, where I lead the engineering organization) and we started ordering dinners to provide an incentive for people to stay late. Food would arrive between 5-6pm and most people would stay until 7 or 8. Almost everyone ordered meals. When people might normally leave around 6, we found most people staying at least 1-2 hours longer than they had in the past because of the dinners (part of this was the guilt trip that if you order food you really ought to be staying late).

One day we were pushing against a tight deadline and the whole team was planning on getting up to go to lunch. So I said “Hey guys, let’s work through lunch and I will go pick up food for everyone.” The team was excited by this and everyone stayed through lunch (and later dinner) excited by the lure of free food. We decided to keep doing lunches for the next couple of weeks until our milestone.

We were able to hit our deadline with ease (something that we thought was unlikely) and it quickly came apparent that these meals were drastically increasing our productivity as a team. Of course part of it was because people were working more hours, but lunches had a much bigger impact than dinner ever did.

Why was free lunch so important? Well our team would all go pick up or eat lunch together. Even if it wasn’t the whole team it was usually more than 2-3 people, and that is a lot when we only have a 10 person team. By moving lunches in the office everyone would stay. Everyone would work through lunch and even though they were eating at their desks, people would eat together and socialize a little bit (we sit in an open space so it is easy to visit one another without getting up). Not having people leave the office to go pick up food made a huge impact on our productivity as a team.

So after our glowing success I considered suspending the program (since getting food from restaurants isn’t always cheap). However when I started working the economics, I reconsidered:

Developer Salary: about $75k or $35/hr
Average cost of a meal: $20

Cost savings in 1 year: $15 * 5 days * 48 weeks (assuming 4 weeks vacation) = $3600
With two meals: $7,200
over a team of 10: $72,000 or about 1 full time developer

So even though the meals are an increased cost, I believe that doing them is giving us close to the benefit of an extra head.

Although besides the cost benefit it also makes the developers really happy. They always talk about free meals being a great perk of the job. I also thinks it helps team unity since people spend more of their social time together as a team (lubricating relationships and making collaboration more efficient).

I would strongly suggest that you try it in your office with your team–at least for a while before a milestone and see if it works for you. I would have never believed it made this much of a difference if I hadn’t seen the impact with my own eyes (we have been doing this for about 9 months now with much success).

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