Who’s Hungry at Work?

Firms are sharply boosting food budgets for those coming to work. How safety overtook the salad bar.

It was one of the perks many employees seemingly lost when they were all sent home at the start of the pandemic—free food at the office.

But it turns out lunch is still being served at the workplace. Indeed, nearly one-third of companies have increased their budgets for employee food during the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the corporate catering service EZCater.

Experts say companies see their meal plans not only as a way to keep workers happy but also as a way to keep them safe. Offering lunch on-site means fewer employees have to venture outside, risking exposure to COVID-19 in elevators or restaurants. “Businesses that are open want to reduce as much risk to their employees as possible,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits.

EZCater surveyed firms that have at least 10% of their staff working on-site about their meal plans. Two-thirds were offering free or discounted food at work. These options aren’t the meat-carving stations and salad bars of corporate cafeterias past. Most of the options are pre-packaged boxed lunches.

The question for leaders is whether to keep these lunch options as workers start trickling back to the office. Over the next few months, vaccines will become more widely available, and millions of workers may start returning to their primary workspace. The experiences of the firms offering lunches during the pandemic may encourage other companies to consider providing food to employees, at least during the first few weeks back in the office. There still will be health risks until everyone is vaccinated, so offering food may be a way to keep employees safe and productive. “Organizations have been looking ahead, doing workforce planning, and thinking about ways to get people back into the office,” says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. “Concerns about health and safety are among them, and this is one way to address that.”

The more employers can address workers’ concerns about returning to the office, the easier it will be to encourage them to come back, Royal says. “Showing appreciation for the challenges workers face will help to build employee engagement and help people feel more comfortable being in the office,” he says.