Want a better workplace? Go out for coffee.

3 surprising insights on workplace culture

Photo by David Wright, https://flic.kr/p/4Lnewf

On February 17th, 2016 we published a short essay In Defense of Lunch that hypothesized the link between the amount of casual meal time spent with colleagues and effective meetings. It was timely. Only a few days later, on February 25th, New York Times Magazine published a 9-part series in The Work Issue: Reimagining the Office which included the article Failure To Lunch by Molia Wollan exploring “the lamentable rise of desktop dining.”

Wollan revealed nearly 62% of professionals eat lunch alone at their desks. She too offers a possible link between solitary eating and our ability to work together:

…the desk lunch detracts from our sense of the office as a collaborative, innovative, sociable space. It is hard to foster that feeling when workers eat single-serving yogurt alone, faces lit in the monochrome blue of their computer screens.

Wollan also summarized the findings of Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, who studied the link between sharing food and team efficacy among firefighters by surveying fire-department captains and lieutenants in a major American city.

[Wansick et al.] found significant positive correlations between work performance and eating and cooking as a team. Firehouses where firefighters ate together reported more cooperative behavior; they were better at their jobs.

Think about that: they were better at their jobs because they ate together.

At Parabol, we wanted to put this idea to the test. First, we wanted to determine if sharing a casual meal with a colleague increased a sense of being one’s authentic self at the office. Next, that being one’s authentic self at the office correlated to meeting satisfaction. So, we conducted a survey of 94 participants connected to us on social media.

Some of the results were surprising.

1. Sharing a coffee correlates with workplace authenticity

We hypothesized that investing in casual meals with colleagues would correlate with feeling like you can be your full candid self in the office. After all, the better you know your colleagues, the less you should feel like you need to pretend to be somebody else, right? What we found surprised us:

A habit of sharing coffee with a coworker correlates strongly with feeling like you can bring your full self to work (Casual AM coffee p=0.028, Casual PM coffee p=0.032, see: Figure 2). Other meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and happy hours — had no effect.

Figure 2. A comparison of casual interactions and feeling candid at the workplace.

This is a strong argument for the practice of Fika: the near compulsory coffee break practiced in Sweden where employees discuss both private and professional matters.

2. Bringing your whole self makes for better meetings

Shanock et al. demonstrated if workers believe their colleagues are acting authentically, they also perceive their meetings as being more effective (2013). Our own survey supported their findings. Cool!

Figure 1. A comparison of feeling candid and meeting satisfaction.

We also explored the possibility that when workers feel they can be their “full candid selves” at the office then they themselves may feel their meetings are worthwhile. This also seems to be true:

We found a strong correlation between people who felt like they could bring their whole selves to the office and how satisified they are with their meetings (see: Figure 1).

This isn’t surprising. After all, if you feel like you can be yourself at work why wouldn’t you be satisfied spending your time there?

3. Women prefer smaller teams

Upon looking more deeply at the data we collected, we found another strong trend: women strongly prefer smaller team sizes where men seem not to care.

Figure 3. Comparing team size and meeting satisfaction across genders. Note: no one indicated a tertiary gender or chose not to respond.

This really surprised us, yet somehow felt intuitively true. We wondered, could hierarchy be a factor? Do women crave smaller groups because they tend to be hierarchically flatter and more collaborative? And, do men seem ambivalent to larger groups as long as the pecking order is clear? There is so much more to explore here!

Conclusions

The drivers of effective teams are complex and difficult to tease out. Separating the causal from the correlative is difficult. However, we stand to challenge the status quo of what is seen as ‘professional’ and effective.

Nobody buys, “I’m too busy to exercise,” as an excuse for not investing in one’s health. Could, “I’m too busy to eat together,” one day be seen in the same light for not investing in one’s team? We’ll see.

Clearly our data have suggested some interesting new avenues to explore. We’re very interested in what creates meaning, inclusion, and team efficacy and we want to use this knowledge to build better software.

Want to explore how we’ve reached our conclusions? We’ve made our anonymized data available for you to explore.

We’d love to hear from you: What do you think of our findings? What are your work experiences? What would you like us to explore next?


Additional Survey Analyses

Below are some additional analyses from our work study survey.












Acknowledgements

Athena Diaconis & Robert Wells for their edits.

Sasha Wright for her incredible analytical skill, narrative development, and support.

References

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

Wollan, Molia. Failure to Lunch. New York Times Magazine. 25 February 2016.

About Jordan Husney