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Opinion | Why sharing lunch can build stronger teams

Meeting over meals is a relaxed way to strengthen bonds with colleagues, discover shared interests

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How often do you share a meal with your colleagues in office, partaking of the same dishes, at the same table? Recent research suggests that sharing meals, family-style, can help collaboration and negotiation outcomes in office environments. An insightful research study published in Psychological Science, authored by professors Ayelet Fishbach and Kaitlin Woolley, highlights how the way a meal is served and shared in such settings boosts cooperation. Because sharing a meal involves close coordination at the table, it is likely to trigger greater coordination in subsequent work-related discussions too.

In India, we are accustomed to sharing meals at home; this is our tradition. Plated meals, in individual servings that follow each other, are not our style. Eating a meal together is also a great occasion for free-flowing family conversation, and, in today’s hectic times, perhaps the only formal opportunity to do so every day. No wonder the adage, the family who eats together stays together. Can such dining wisdom apply to our modern offices as well?

I submit that eating together in offices has multiple benefits, and hence this is an activity well worth the pursuit. Here are some ways social workplace dining can help us.

A refreshing break

Most of us toil away at our workstations, staring at our computer screens or engaging in conference calls on our phones, for a good part of the day.

In the midst of such extended and intense individual effort, joining your team mates and members of other teams who work in the same office for a shared lunch is a refreshing break. This involves a welcome change in location, light conversation, getting to know some of the interesting stuff that other teams are working on, and, hopefully, lots of laughter too. So it becomes a break that we look forward to every day. And then we return to our work totally refreshed.

On the other hand, if you choose to eat your lunch alone at your work desk (which, unfortunately, is what many of us do), you have denied yourself this wonderful social break.

Teams can use the shared lunch meeting to get to know each other, unshackled from the formality of conference rooms
Teams can use the shared lunch meeting to get to know each other, unshackled from the formality of conference rooms (Photo: iStock)

Better communication

The team that eats together, works together more closely. Food and drink generally relax us, so when we meet over food we meet in a positive environment that encourages informal and free-flowing conversation. That’s why we often choose to meet someone over a cup of coffee, or invite a colleague to lunch.

Teams can use the shared lunch meeting to get to know each other better, unshackled from the formality of conference rooms. Speaking about interests, movies, books and ongoing work projects over a leisurely meal is perhaps an excellent way to nurture sustained team bonding. An occasional glass of wine or beer after work helps, too.

As professor Kevin Kniffin of Cornell University has said, “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking at an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work.”

Variety is spice

Some of us may remember sharing lunch with friends during our schooldays. We would bring our food from home in steel tiffins and, in a somewhat messy but thoroughly enjoyable way, share all the delicious ghar ka khana. What fun.

This is perfectly replicable in our offices too. We work in multicultural teams today, so imagine how interesting it would be to pool Punjabi, Konkani, Gujarati and Bengali food on the lunch table at least once in a while.

Variety is the spice of life, and I can imagine some very interesting and happy conversations around food, resulting from such tiffin-box sharing. These conversations can be engaging, and can lead to new friendships, because so many of us are foodies at heart.

Collaboration & coordination

Sharing a meal with common dishes on the table calls for seamless and quick coordination. For instance, you have to ensure that you don’t selfishly eat too much of one particular dish, leaving very little for others.

Passing dishes across the table without spilling stuff is an art in itself. Ensuring that the vegetarians, non-vegetarians and vegans, all enjoy themselves without causing discomfort or any unfortunate mix-ups requires coordination.

And if you have tried ordering in a restaurant for a team of 10 hungry people who are also particular about the food they eat, you will know the extreme cooperation this requires. All this constant give-and-take at the dining table is very likely to subconsciously translate into better team collaboration during subsequent work, negotiations and discussions.

Breaking the ice

Imagine your colleagues and you are meeting a team from another organisation for the first time to explore a collaboration, or for negotiations. They are strangers to all of you at the outset and the discussions are therefore perhaps somewhat stiff and formal. There is no better way to break the ice than for both teams to sit down and share a meal together.

This loosens up the atmosphere, and ensures that both parties get to know each other in a more relaxed environment. If you are sharing from the same dishes at the same table, this is even better. After the lunch or dinner, remember to ask members of the other team what dessert or ice-cream they would prefer to end the meal with. Suggest a kulfi or falooda, or the local fresh ice-cream topped with nuts and hot chocolate sauce. Watch the smiles spread all around. Discussions thereafter will be a tad sweeter, for sure.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He loves food, but he has to get distinctly better at organizing relaxed team dinners.

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