Lunchroom designed so employees ‘bump into each other’

by HCA03 Aug 2012

A trend in HR management at the moment seems to be a re-focus on lunch breaks. Lunch rooms are being revamped and some companies have even taken to enforcing a ‘no food at desks’ policy.

Related article: The HR folks at BHP may be onto something

Then there’s Google. They’ve designed the lunchroom at their Sydney HQ so that the tables are slightly too close together specifically to capitalise on the socialising aspect of eating together. The theory goes that innovative, creative ideas can spring up over a sandwich in the lunchroom between staff members who otherwise may not have the change to collaborate.

Squeezing between a tight table, two employees may bump into one another, prompting a “sorry”, “no, I’m sorry” style exchange. Then @%&!!!!BOOM!*^&!!!@#* innovative sparks ensue.

But maybe it’s a theory just crazy enough to work…

According to a research project by US-based Sociometric Solutions in association with MIT and Harvard University, the number of people a worker sits with at lunch is a factor in higher performance. Waber found that workers who regularly sit with large groups of colleagues at tables for 10- 12 in their lunchrooms have substantially higher performance than those who sit at tables for 4 or less. In doing so, the workers tend to be clued into a broader cross-section of co-workers and can access more people for advice.

The hypothesis was reached after the research team gathered information about workers from their mobile phones, emails and work ID badges to track their workplace behaviours.

Using a technique called “reality mining”, the team claims it was able to help a pharmaceutical company which had previously provided “awful coffee” in areas where there was no seating. Lead researcher Ben Waber told the New York Times that in general, when they looked at what made people happy and effective at a company, it came down to being able to spend time with a close group of people. “You need to structure work in such a way that people have those opportunities,” Waber said in the report.

Following the experiment, Waber convinced the company to provide one central communal area with lots of seating – and improved the coffee – and people began mingling with a wide range of co-workers, he said.

Another corporate client of Waber’s had been staggering lunch hours at its call centres so as to prevent too many people in a team being away from the phones at once. And, while this seemed like the most logical way to go, when those not at lunch needed to let off steam there were not enough people around that they knew well enough to “vent” to. Waber suggested bringing in an alternate team to fill in, and claimed a 25% increase in the number of calls answered alongside a reduction in stress levels.


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