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Jul 13, 2023

If You Feed Them, Will They Return to the Office?

tags: leadership,business,decision making,wise decision making,leadership development,cognitive bias,decision-making process,leaders,work from home,return to office,hybrid work,remote work

corporate dining

It is no news that the pandemic turned the world upside down. Businesses had to adopt new ways of operating, and employees were caught in a whirlwind of changes. Among these changes, a new protagonist emerged on the scene: corporate dining. Suddenly, it wasn't just about offering food—it became an amenity to support the return to the office. I recently sat down to interview Said Elkhodary, SVP Professional Dining at Elior North America, to discuss this fascinating evolution.

A Pandemic Pivot: Turning the Tables on Traditional Corporate Dining

As Elkhodary explained, pre-pandemic, 50-60% of their business was on a profit & loss basis, with employees buying the company's products. The remaining 40% was fee-based management. However, during the pandemic, a seismic shift occurred. Some businesses turned their full cafeterias into "Grab and Go" mini markets or "one man show" service stations, and some even subsidized their employees' meals 100%.

Like a juggler keeping plates spinning, Elior transitioned into a predominantly subsidized and fee management business model, composing 95% of their revenue. Instead of layoffs, they were hiring, a rare triumph amid the pandemic gloom.

Staying Afloat in a Sea of Change

Now, as we venture into the post-pandemic era, a new wave of change is upon us. Companies are readjusting, seeking balance between their contributions and what employees pay for their food. Some, in a clever twist of cost allocation, are offering free beverages while charging for meals.

Does free food bring more people to the office, though? Elkhodary's experience shows not necessarily. Rather than a free lunch enticing employees back, the expectation of holistic amenities, including flexibility to work from home, prevails. Still, corporate dining is emerging as a social tool, a magnet to attract employees to the office. It's like inviting people to a party, knowing the promise of good food and company will lure them in - but flexibility still triumphs free food.

This strategy resonates with my own experience helping companies transition to hybrid work. For instance, the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California now organizes social gatherings around food, such as afternoon cookies and coffee or lunch meetings. 

The goal was not to push people to come to the office, but to invite those who wanted to see their colleagues to come at a time when they knew everyone else would be there. In other words, the provision of meals solved the problem of collective action by providing a social anchor, instead of the previous situation when ISI staff would come to the office and just see empty offices. The result? A greater sense of community and increased office attendance on those days.

Elkhodary mentioned the innovative idea of turning corporate cafes into "destinations." Imagine, instead of watching the big game at home, you do it at your office's cafe with your colleagues, enjoying the company-sponsored happy hour. This brilliant move transforms the office from a mere workplace into a social hub.

The focus on corporate dining also brings a new emphasis on health and wellness. A bag of chips and a soda won't cut it anymore. Companies are now offering healthier options such as fruit, nuts, and seltzer water. Elior’s BeWell program, for instance, not only caters to all allergens but also promotes healthier food choices. Some companies even offer incentives for ordering from the BeWell program, turning the selection of a meal into a conscious health choice.

Reinventing the Corporate Dining Landscape

As we navigate through these changes, one thing is certain: the concept of corporate dining has been forever altered. Gone are the days when food at the office was just a convenient amenity. Today, it is a strategic tool for boosting employee morale, enhancing social interactions, and promoting a healthier lifestyle.

Businesses are now creating a whole new culinary landscape in their office spaces, introducing a mix of engaging food-based activities. It's akin to going to a food festival where each day holds a unique treat, from 'Cookies and Coffee Hour' to 'Happy Hour Huddles'. Just as you'd gravitate towards the wafting aromas at a food fest, employees are drawn to these new and enticing dining experiences at work.

Unraveling the Complex Web of Hybrid Work

Yet, the flexibility of hybrid work adds complexity to this equation. Imagine organizing a lavish feast, but you don't know how many guests are going to arrive. It's a game of adaptability, constant tracking, and predictive analysis, very much like a chef experimenting with new recipes, adjusting ingredients on the fly based on the diner's reactions.

Companies have to monitor office attendance closely, predict patterns, and plan their dining offerings accordingly. It’s a balancing act, like a tightrope walker maintaining her equilibrium despite the changing winds. Companies that master this balancing act will find themselves at an advantage in the hybrid work era.

Blending Creativity and Strategy: The Future of Corporate Dining

What does the future hold for corporate dining? If the current trends are any indication, we are in for a fascinating fusion of creativity and strategic planning. Imagine walking into your office cafe, not just to grab a quick sandwich, but to enjoy a thoughtfully curated dining experience, engage in impromptu social interactions, or even catch a live game with your colleagues.

It's like transforming a simple diner into a vibrant gastro pub. This change not only elevates the dining experience but also creates a dynamic, engaging, and inclusive environment that employees look forward to every day.

Conclusion: Dining, the Secret Ingredient to Successful Hybrid Work

The journey of corporate dining through the pandemic has been nothing short of a culinary roller coaster ride. It began as a necessity, transformed into an amenity, then a lifesaver during the pandemic, and now, it stands as a cornerstone of the return-to-office strategy.

In the end, dining has become the secret ingredient to making hybrid work a success. It's the cheese in the macaroni, the salsa on the chips, and the cherry on top of the cake that makes the return to office not just palatable, but also appealing, engaging, and downright delightful. It truly has become an amenity that supports the return to the office, one delicious bite at a time. And not by pushing people to come to the office, but by providing a supportive social anchor that facilitates attendance at a time when others are also in the office, combined with the joy of breaking bread - or eating a healthy salad - with your colleagues.

Key Take-Away

Corporate dining has evolved into a strategic tool for boosting morale, promoting social interactions, and supporting the return to the office in the era of hybrid work...>Click to tweet

Image credit: fauxels/Pexels

Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts on May 19, 2023

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at

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