In Defense of Lunch

Exploring the tie between employee intimacy and effective meetings

Photo by Luiz Filipe Carneiro Machado, https://flic.kr/p/8d4tqk

Oh, the humanity

“I feel disgusting today, our family didn’t do anything this weekend other than lay around in our pajamas.” Around the conference table, there are a few chuckles. It’s 10:08am and the meeting hasn’t started. It’s scheduled to end at half-past. Others chime in to the pre-meeting banter: one colleague shares they were up all night with a sick kid, another shares their opinion on the Super Bowl halftime show.

I get a sinking feeling. I glance at my phone’s calendar to see what I’ll be late to next. I fire off a quick note to the meeting organizer:

Check-in with leadership will run over. Will be 5–15 late. Sorry!

We’ve been waiting for the last straggler to come in and sit down. When she arrives, the meeting begins. Despite the light-hearted chit-chat, the first agenda item surfaces tension: a decision was made without the input of one of the team members. Faces flush as the conversation intensifies between a few participants. Some of us retreat further into our inboxes. We never never make it beyond the first item on the agenda.

An offer is made to “loop you in next time” to the person who felt ignored. An apology “for being so difficult” is given in return. Eye contact is avoided. It’s not clear that either colleague means what they say.

The emotional contrast between our pre-meeting banter and the content of the meeting itself seems stark. One jovial, the other fraught with anxiety. However, each exchange is patently inauthentic. It’s evident we’ve got a long way to go before we know and trust one another.

Eating alone while working at one’s desk (source: https://flic.kr/p/aoY3JX)

People begin to leave the room late for their next engagements, and some with hurt feelings. I ask one of my colleagues if they’d like to grab lunch later that afternoon.

“What? Are you kidding me? I’ve got to get back to my inbox.”

I’m disappointed, but it’s probably for the best. I’ve got plenty to get done anyway.


Alone, together

Working on a team can be a strangely alienating activity. We consciously regulate our own emotions while enduring inauthentic ‘surface acting’ in others (Shanock et al., 2013). With members of senior management attending meetings for more than 23 hours a week on average (Rogelberg, Scott, & Kello, 2007), the emotional exertion alone is exhausting. While we work hard playing our part in the never-ending theatrical production of professionalism, we may be doing more harm than good.

When we are isolated from one another, trust suffers. People see each other not as human beings but impediments to achieving individual pursuits: bureaucrats we must win over, dupe, bully, or avoid to get what we want. Savvy employees can map temporary coalitions and fiefdoms as well as any citizen living within the borders of a failed state. Achievement as a team becomes impossible.

A healthy workplace demands authenticity, trust, and intimacy. It’s been shown that a reduction in workplace surface acting has been linked to an increased perception of meeting effectiveness (Shanock et al., 2013). Increased authenticity has also demonstrated a reduction in employee reports of intentions to quit and emotional exhaustion. The question is, how can we become more authentic at work with one another?

Eating your way to a better workplace

At Parabol, we wondered if there isn’t a link between the frequency workers share casual meals with one another and perceived authenticity in the meeting room. Could a step toward a more effective office be to dedicate more time to lunch rather than to eating alone at one’s desk?

Figure 2. Hypothesized correlation

We constructed a simple 3 question survey asking:

  1. On a scale of 1–5, I feel like I am my full candid self during my primary team meetings… (1=not at all, 5=all the time)
  2. On a scale of 1–5, I feel like my teammates are fully candid during our primary team meetings… (1=not at all, 5=all the time)
  3. When you attend meetings, how often do you feel like the other participants are restraining their emotions or are acting inauthentically?

Help us!

Our survey instrument is live (March 5th, 2016 update: the survey has since concluded). Help us distribute it and check our hypothesis. We’ll share the results with the world. Simply copy the survey link below and distribute it within your own organization:

Survey link: http://goo.gl/forms/EkyhoHBKyp

If you’d like to be notified when we analyze the results, follow us on Medium or signup for our email newsletter.


References

Rogelberg , S.G., Scott, C.S., & Kello, J. (2007). The Science and Fiction of Meetings. MIT Sloan Management Review, 48, 18–21.

Shanock, L. R., Allen, J. A., Dunn A. M., Baran, B., Scott, C.W. & Rogelberg, S.G. (2013). Less acting, more doing: How surface acting relates to perceived meeting effectiveness and other employee outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 86, 457–476. doi: 10.111/joop. 12037

About Jordan Husney