When Sarah Nelson started working at Staylisted, a digital marketing agency in Phoenix, Ariz., she needed a while to adjust. A naturally shy person, she often felt uncomfortable and left out. And these feelings were only magnified when it came to dealing with her boss. "My boss seemed like . . . a boss," Nelson told me via email. "I was scared to go near his office. If he talked to me, I was awkward and stutter-y."
Until, that is, her boss decided to take the team out to lunch.
"That lunch made me realize that everyone around me was just a person -- a possible friend," Nelson went on to say. "They told jokes and had favorite movies. They played videos and had stories about their kids."
Today, Nelson sees the people she works with, including her boss, as part of her family -- all because they sat down and had a meal together. And, as good as that sounds, it's not the only benefit that comes from employers eating with their staff. Here are four reasons real companies have started having family-style meals:
A closer team
When Impraise, a performance-management software company based in New York, had just five employees, they all sat down and had lunch together. Now, the company has more than 30 employees, and they still eat together at one large table.
"We've found this has a great effect on maintaining open communication as we grow, ensuring that people never feel divided, even if we're working on different things," Bas Kohnke, CEO of Impraise, said in an email.
The company also randomly picks two employees each day to be in charge of grocery shopping, and to set up and clean up. "These people are always selected from different teams and include everyone from the CEO to the newest intern," said Kohnke. "It's a great way to mix it up and make sure people from different parts of the company also have some one-on-one time together."
One way leaders can make family-style meals special is to cater meals. ZeroCater, for example, is a corporate catering company that works with local restaurants in the New York, Chicago, Austin and San Francisco metro areas to deliver meals to offices.
At GMR Web Team, an internet marketing and reputation-management company in Tustin, Calif., the entire company has lunch together on Fridays. But the point of the lunch meetings isn't to talk shop, it's to improve the relationships among co-workers.
As a result, the company is seeing better employee retention. "Keeping morale high with these team-bonding events not only goes well with employees, but with the company as a whole," Ajay Prasad, founder and president of GMR Web Team, told me. "People are willing to stay longer because friends are there, too."
When a team performs admirably and meets its goals, a meal is a great way to celebrate. No matter how large a company is, free food is a great way to show employees they're appreciated.
At Clean Affinity, a cleaning company in Portland, Ore., employees recently got together to celebrate great sales and customer feedback.
"I ordered a pizza, and we had a little party in the office," said Joanna Douglas, the company's owner, in an email. "It was special because we were all together. Sometimes our schedules don't sync because of the shifting, but we finally got to celebrate something that was a joint effort."
These types of meals, she said, recognize her employees and help motivate the entire team.
As Jellyvision, a Chicago-based tech company that helps people make life decisions, grew over the years, leaders found it more difficult to make employees feel important. If those leaders had not recognized the problem, they could have ruined their relationship with those employees. That's why, to maintain contact with everyone, Jellyvision created its lunch program.
"Once a month, the leadership team at Jellyvision is paired at random with a group of employees from around the company," said Bob Armour, CMO. "Coming together for lunch takes down any feeling of corporate barriers that may arise."
There are no agendas for the lunches, so the conversation can develop naturally. For example, Armour was recently able to get suggestions on where to go during his upcoming trip to Florence.
When it comes down to summing up the benefits of employees at lunch, Armour put it best: "It was just people eating and talking about interesting things."