Comestible Connectivity in the Workplace

“Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has history. It has a story. It has relationships” – Wiona Laduke.

Breaking Bread

Millennials take centre stage when it comes to food. This foodie generation has fundamentally changed the way food is created, served and delivered in the workplace by being part of a transformation age which has allowed them to disseminate information at speed making it important for employers to offer more transparency, consciousness and connectivity when it comes to their food offerings. Then just when we thought we’d figured out Millennials, Generation Z are now making an entrance into the workforce! This generational cohort have been exposed to what it means to be connected, transparent and conscious for all their lives, having grown up in an era where technology such as iPads, smartphones, and social media are the norm. With Generation Z being the up and coming workforce and game changers in relation to food it’s important from the outset to recognise that ‘connectedness’ from inception sets them apart from previous generations. 

As “Gen Z” transition into the workplace, Millennials are adapting in order to survive and collaborate with this new generation. In the world of food marketing, authenticity has become a core focal point. Millennial consumers were the first generation to make known their preference for authentic content whilst Generation Z are going further by making it clear that it’s important for them to feel connected to brands and the people behind them. It’s the reason that so many food brands have now made conscious decisions to make their marketing campaigns as true to life and as relatable as possible. One such example is the Happy Pear. Irish plant-based vegan chefs, Dave and Stephen Flynn, have achieved success by marketing their ‘Happy Pear’ brand in terms of being a movement to create happier healthier lifestyles in a community style environment that make people feel supported in their efforts to make change (The Happy Pear, 2020).

Culinary Connectivity WORKS! 

Our attitudes may differ when it comes to nutrition. However, it’s an undeniable primary fact that food is required to provide daily sustenance. Today’s food-centric generations (Millennials and Generation Z) have elevated food to a new level given rise to more fully immersive food experiences at work. Being more food-focused at work than previous generations, both of these generational cohorts tend to put further emphasis on their food workplace offerings. In response to this, employers are beginning to realise the efficacy of healthy food in terms of productivity in the workplace. According to Short (2019), some companies now understand the importance of food as an enabler in retaining valuable employees, by providing a work environment conducive to wellness with food at the heart of the proposition. For instance, employees at the global tech company Google enjoy some terrific perks at work. Historically, Google employees appreciated perks such as paid maternity and paternity leave however Yang (2017) suggests that in more recent years they have highlighted workplace food and food education offerings as some of their most favourite perks at work. Bock (205) supports the view that most of their food source offerings such as cafes, canteens and micro kitchens are strategically placed between different work teams with the goal being to connect them together by encouraging them to interact and collaborate. By creating these types of food spaces employers also positively encourage employees to leave their desk and interact with other work colleagues, whose workspaces are not nearby. A variety of free cookery classes and demonstrations which are offered as perks for employees, that were traditionally available on-site, have now moved online to connect remote staff working from home, allowing them to continue to bond with teammates whilst also enabling them to learn how to make new dishes. To that effect McNamee (2020) reported that after lockdown a lot of large corporate companies in both Ireland and abroad, wanted Ballymaloe Cookery School based in East Cork to run online cookalongs with their staff.

During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which is still on-going, Kunthara (2020) highlights the fact that numerous companies worldwide such as Fitbit and Red Bull have increasingly embraced home delivery options by providing employer-subsidized, work-from-home boxes to for their employees. You may ask yourself the reason why companies are pivoting and provide these fantastic workplace food offerings and food perks? Well, in most cases the purpose of these perks is to help support staff during this challenging time and inspire a culture of innovative thinking.

Hungry for Knowledge

These two demographic cohorts’ tend to face criticism over their commitment to the workplace. Brandished by Bhunjun (2018) as work-shy generations exhibiting “snowflake” tendencies, these young adults are reported as being more prone to taking offence and being thin-skinned compared to previous generations. On the contrary, recent data analysis by Fry and Parker (2018) from the Pew Research Center shows that Generation Z are the most diverse and highly educated generation. This remains evident when it comes to food as Millennials and Gen Zers are both demanding fresh, organic and sustainable food offerings. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2004) the previous selection of food that used to feed daily diets was limited, with 75% originating from just twelve plant and five animal species. Younger generations recognise that this widespread food consumption monotony and dependence on a narrow range of agricultural products may lead to health implications as well as increasing vulnerabilities on their food system, that currently appear to be under threat from climate change.

Millennials and Gen Z tend to take a holistic view when it comes to their health. To this effect they place considerable emphasis on the importance of physical fitness, healthy eating, and mental well-being. When it comes to food, they want convenient and healthy options available to them. A recent Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Report (2015) discovered that Gen Zers are the most willing of all generations to pay a premium for healthy foods, such as all-natural, sustainable and GMO-free foods. In terms of nutritional choices, Gen Z are in favour of low-carb, high-protein foods, likely to consume plant-based products and are also more open to becoming vegetarian. Jed (2018) maintains that these dietary choices are primarily motived by health and environmental concerns with almost 80% of Gen Z planning to go meatless at least once or days per week.

Over the past two decades, social media has played a huge part impacting these younger generations. Due to these advances in technology the passage between Millennials and Gen Zers has accelerated intensely in terms of food. The fact that both generations have grown up with companies marketing to them largely through social media platforms, as much as every other advertising channel, makes them question authenticity more when it comes to the food they choose to eat. With the average attention span of this iGeneration being down four seconds from the attention span of millennials Reilly (2017), this youngest generation have adapted and developed more of a “Grab and Go” culture when it comes to food than the previous generations that have gone before them. For the past five years, Jack Kirwan founder and co-owner of the Dublin based Sprout & Co. has successfully been providing this type of healthy grab and go food offering to meet the needs of these food-centric generations. He maintains that technology has been a huge enabler of efficiencies in running the business successfully and he also understands the importance of transparency when it comes to sourcing ingredients (Bord Bia, 2017).

Whilst we are currently living and working in this era of COVID-19 it has also become apparent that these generations are starting to pay more attention to the science of food functionality, opting for more nutritional food sources that will help boost their immunity. According to recent Google searches immune-building foods, vitamins and minerals including vitamins C and D, elderberries and spinach are a selection of food source and vitamin search terms that are being researched for their immune potential.

Food Centrality at work

A study published by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) in 2018 valued the workplace wellness market at a staggering $47.5bn (Kumar, 2018). Given the considerable time that employees spend in their jobs Quintiliani et al., (2010) believe that workplaces now represent an influential setting for influencing dietary patterns. By extension these communal food consumption patterns highlight the influence of workspaces as being an important centre for shared food moments and experiences.  I touched on the fact that we consume food differently when we’re in the company of other people compared to when we eat alone in a recent publication titled “Millennial Culinary Curiosity: Generation Foodie Fuelling Generation Next” (Fitzgibbon, 2019).

The current COVID-19 pandemic has changed this traditional dynamic of workplace settings with employees now, more than ever, craving social connection. Pre-COVID-19, working from home was considered a top employee perk whilst now, in most cases, it’s a requirement. With lockdown restrictions in place, various governments worldwide are making it compulsory for employees in non-essential workplace employees to work in homebased settings to help in their national efforts to reduce the COVID-19 virus number. Companies are becoming creative, finding unique ways to bring together and engage employees by way of food and it’s centrality context in the workplace setting. Deloitte Australia has independently experimented in this idea of virtual socialising by way of meals shared with their virtual team members around a video conference meeting with no agenda. These brown bag lunch events have become increasingly popular enabling remote workers to take a break and engage with each other whilst mainstreaming flexibility. HR departments are also co-ordinating voluntary lunchtime Zoom video sessions for employees that allowed them to talk about things unrelated to work.

Recent research in understanding  millennials highlights the priority they place on forging shared experiences using food and drink via their capturing and sharing of food moments (Bord Bia, 2014). Being digital natives having always known a life emphasised by shared connections Generation Z have embraced and further accelerated this concept. Furthermore, most of these Gen Zers are looking for food options at work that fit in with their core values. Thus, being inclusive and social food can help to bind work colleagues and generations together.

IncrEDIBLE Engagement

According to the global foodservice company Sodexo (2020), “the new 360-degree workplace food landscape is reshaping traditional approaches based on consumer insights and big trends transforming the way we work and live”. Food is now an offering at work that a multitude of companies are building with employee participation. Unlike the traditional one-dimensional workplace food offerings which previously were enough to satisfy employees, these new 360-degree food landscape offerings are enabling employers to consider employee wellbeing, productivity and performance.

As the behaviours and perceptions of the new generation of employees have evolved, so too have their expectations when it comes to food in the workplace. Millennials and Generation Zers are used to a different standard of foodservice and expect this to be mirrored in their workplace food experience. Traditional lunch hours have become obsolete. Be it working remotely or in office settings, these new generations have one thing in common – they are looking for more flexible offerings that fit flawlessly into their lifestyles. When it comes to food, they expect the same level of convenience and choice that they receive outside the office environment.

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for employers to embrace solutions that support these changing workstyles and evolving expectations, with emerging innovations that bring new value to employees. Companies have been adopting innovative incentives to maintain productivity and engagement among their telecommuting staff. Perks related to food and drink, teambuilding and the use of technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts have been embraced while HR departments are in the process of making ongoing adjustments and rethinking new approaches in terms of their company cultures.

Food has always been a social movement, by way of its network of informal interactions between individuals, groups and organizations on the basis of its shared collective identity. The current COVID-19 pandemic workplace has globally accelerated food changes, allowing both Millennial and Gen Z generations to explore the world of ‘Social Gastronomy’, in terms of new and different approaches of acting and thinking when it comes to the collective food in the workplace space. We have seen social gastronomy in action with campaigns such as ‘Feeding the Frontline Workers’. Clean Cut Meals, a Galway-based healthy food preparation and delivery company, in the West of Ireland is one of many food companies, having delivered free healthy and nutritional meals to medical and frontline staff at their workplaces during this crisis. With many of them working exhaustive hours during this global healthcare crisis it has left many of them with very little time to shop or cook. Then at the other end of the spectrum other catering and food businesses are serving at-cost meals to supply food-insecure residents in their communities.

Hurrah for Hyperlocal!

Having never known a world without a smartphone, Gen Z are hyper-connected (Powell, 2015). They are highly aware of what is happening around them on both a regional and global level making them both hyper-local and hyper-global. The recent Mitchell (2019) “OmniLocal Consumer Report” examined the new definition of local and the implications for brands. Their research shows that 74 per cent of Millennial and Gen Z consumers do not consider geographic location when defining “community.” Instead, more than half of these surveyed generations maintain that “local” is anywhere that they connect with others who share their same interests. For many Millennials and Generation Zers work is a central focus in terms of their shared values and interests. So, on this front it’s important for employers to understand and embrace the ‘Hyperlocal’ concept when it comes to food, in order to satisfy employee expectations.

Deliveroo is a fantastic example of cutting-edge food company that appeals to these food-centric generations, having surpassed everyone in their niche food delivery platform. With operations in several global locations the company is currently valued at around $2 billion (Singh, 2019). Disrupting the traditional business models Singh (2019) proposes that Deliveroo combined the aggregator business model with the marketplace and logistics business model to create an all-new hyperlocal on-demand business model. By positioning the business as a hyper-local brand they can effectively offer a diverse premium range of local food via their network of global locations. The Covid-19 pandemic has helped to further shine a beacon of light on local produce and producers, with social media platforms trending hashtags such as #buylocal, #shoplocal and #supportlocal, reminding us all to help sustain work and local employment in our communities. 

The Future of Food at Work

The future looks bright in terms of comestible connectivity in the workplace. Both Millennials and Generation Z have the potential to reset expectations impacting the future of the food. Raised to focus on the quality of food, whether it’s fresh, clean, or nutritionally beneficial these younger generation of employees are now becoming collaborators in the movement toward a better and more sustainable food future. They are leading the way by already making conscious choices aimed at driving positive impact for the good of the planet in their own lives whilst also influencing those around them. It will be important for employers to align their food offerings with these trends to meet this modern employee mindset.

… “La nourriture est notre terrain d’entente, une experience universelle” – James Beard.

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