Creative Ways for Your Food Services to Make Returning to the Office More Palatable

As facilities managers, workplace specialists, and HR leaders prepare for employees to return to work, their plates are full with protocols, preparations, and communications planning, along with more difficult decisions, such as whether to require proof of vaccination. For HR leaders in particular, this long task list is overshadowed by the stats showing that many employees are not exactly excited about the prospect of returning to work.

Take, for example, the results of a new survey sponsored by Citrix of 2,000 Millenial and Gen-Z global knowledge workers. Ninety percent of them indicated that they have no interest in returning to full time office work, and more than half prefer a hybrid model where they can work from home most or all of the time. Those numbers are daunting for companies that want to support worker preferences, and at the same time, want teams to return to the office at least several days a week for productive collaboration. What’s a viable approach for success?

Countering Employee’s Reticence About the Office Return

In a recent MarketWatch article, Art Zeile, the CEO of DHI Group which operates the online tech talent marketplace, recommends that companies focus on making trips to the office appealing and fun, rather than simply required. Companies are experimenting with ideas that embrace this direction, like “‘camp-fire’-type collaboration areas” at Google. While not every business has the resources to rebuild their office space with these types of amenities, there are other creative approaches that cost far less.

One area that is ripe for creative experimentation is your food service. Pre-pandemic, communal dining was a huge benefit for both employees and companies. From free or low-cost high quality meal choices to the social and team-building benefits, and often the cross-pollination of ideas from disparate groups in the corporate cafeteria, everyone appreciated the upsides. But with fears of communal gatherings still running high, asking employees to grab lunch together may now be a big negative.

So where to start? Your food services provider is likely a motivated innovation partner. Like you, they want to get their staff back to work, so the uncertainties around in-office employee populations is just as much of a concern to them. And many food service operators are already spearheading creative programs that are adding value to employee populations.

Order-Ahead or Mobile Ordering

Several of our customers have implemented pre-order options for employees that have already returned to campus. Some include delivery to employees’ buildings on larger campuses. This capability allows the food operation to limit crowding and control the flow of diners through the onsite cafe, a boon for safe operations during the height of the pandemic. 

With more employees coming back, this capability can help to allay fears that might keep some away. In a recent survey of B&I diners by the food ordering technology company Nutrislice, almost 40% of respondents said they would avoid purchasing food from their corporate cafe if contactless ordering systems weren’t available, implying that this innovation may now be table stakes.

Luckily this innovation isn’t just a once-and-done type of initiative—the addition of online ordering systems will provide significant benefits that will last long beyond the immediate post-pandemic era. Think of the times you were preparing for a meeting and scrambling to grab lunch to-go, but you just happened to hit the cafeteria at the height of the food rush. The ability to avoid this wait going forward will clearly impact the happiness of diners indefinitely.

Meal Kits / Take-Home Meals

A big perk for employees making their way into the office is providing meal kits or take-home dinners that are available when departing from the office at the end of the day. Three T. Rowe Price locations pioneered this idea with their food services provider, CulinArt, starting last July, and Sodexo has partnered with HelloFresh to implement meal kits for college students. This is a great option for maintaining the positives of corporate meals for those coming in (and taking the time to commute), while eliminating the drawbacks of communal dining. 

Cooking Lessons / Meal Supplies

The snack & employee gift delivery company SnackNation recently surveyed their blog readers to determine the most preferred employee rewards. Out of the 121 ideas evaluated, the number 3 selection for rewards was “connecting with employees out of the office over a shared interest” and number 47 was “cooking lessons”. If your executive chef has a penchant for teaching, like NYU chef Tatiana Ortiz, this combination of ideas can naturally turn into a win-win for employees and your food operation. In-office employees can be rewarded with the supplies for a remote cooking lesson to be completed at home, then an online group class can be launched with other employees for a safe, fun chance to connect. (This was something we did at Dishcraft with great success!)

These creative ideas can help reward employees for making the trip into the office, perhaps even adding the elements of fun and connection with coworkers in return for their efforts. They also have the benefit of supporting your food operation so it can remain a viable part of your corporate campus moving forward. While these are just three options, hopefully these ideas provide some food for thought about programs that might work for your location.

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