When it comes to its office interiors, Google is famous for placing a premium on quirk. At the company's Silicon Valley headquarters, employees can do their laundry or take a nap in one of the sleep pods. At its London offices, meetings are held in mock double-decker buses and staff are encouraged to work in deck chairs.
So it is surprising that one of its three London canteens is quirk-free. An open kitchen faces out on to clutches of small tables and employees line up at various counters examining the offerings.
And that is where the canteen does display a bit of the Google quirk – the food is impressive, and retains the generosity of a dotcom-boom Internet start-up. Chefs bustle around the kitchen serving fresh sardines, oysters and steak. The refrigerator is stocked with several brands of organic and soya yogurts. Brownies, chocolate fudge cake, Victoria sponge are on the shelves. Vegan, vegetarian, kosher options. Three meals a day, plus biscuits, fruit and ice cream, are on tap. And staff do not pay a penny.
Jim Glass, who joined Google when it was a start-up and is now the European food services manager, says the canteens are built around a simple philosophy: "local, organic and sustainable." This, he enthuses over a roasted vegetable salad and melon lemonade, matches the company's founding ethos by providing an "informal, collaborative environment. When Google started, everyone ate together – the founders sat with the HR department. It was an opportunity to share ideas."
In Kings Cross, north London, Wolff Olins, the brand consultancy, employs a Wolseley-trained chef preparing subsidized meals using seasonal produce. Lunch in the open kitchen is served between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. and mobile phones are banned to encourage discussion and relaxation. Tanya Kendall, experience manager, says: "It's a real treat. Clients like coming because many work in quite dull environments. It's quite intimate, not a conveyor belt."
As Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, points out, the social function of canteens is as important as the food. "If you have an organization where people benefit from informal discussion then anything that creates a social environment can be incredibly helpful," he says. Even badmouthing a canteen provides a social bonding of sorts.
But the healthy, bountiful spreads at Google and Wolff Olins are anomalies. Moreover, according to Christopher Wanjek, author of Food at Work, their high standards may perversely turn many other employers off providing such fare "because they know they can't afford it."
Nonetheless, he concedes that, overall, the standard of food offered at work canteens in the past decade has improved. "Some have evolved from lousy to passable," he says.
Mr. Glass believes this can only be good for both employers and staff. "Do I think someone will stay here because of the food if they've been offered a pay rise [elsewhere] No," he says. "But it does make them feel valued. It saves them time, they don't have to go out and spend money and it educates them on food – they become better consumers of food."
The enhanced food offering at work canteens has been largely fuelled by health concerns. "There is a growing awareness of obesity and diabetes and its negative effect on worker productivity," says Mr. Wanjek. "This burden is in the tens of billions of dollars in just the U.S. in terms of absenteeism and health-care costs. Serving unhealthy food – even food that workers like – will … come back to haunt the employer who has to compensate for sick days or the lower productivity that obesity and chronic diseases bring."
The demand for healthier food has also been driven by employees themselves, says Deanne Brandstetter, vice-president of nutrition and wellness for Compass USA, the catering company. She highlights "the merging of multiple generations in the workplace of baby boomers, increasingly conscious of their health, together with a younger generation who are aware of wellness and food and expect transparency over what they eat."
As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein pointed out in Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, their book on how to change behaviour, companies can do much to encourage employees to think about their health. They demonstrate, for example, that different layouts in canteens affect people's choices. So replacing cake with fruit in the impulse basket next to the cash register encourages staff to opt for apples over sticky buns.
For some employees, however, gastro incentives can smack of social control. An executive at London-based marketing agency Mother, who likes the company canteen and picks the roasted guinea fowl as a particular favourite, says: "It does make us feel that [we are]encouraged not to leave the building and work even harder."
David Just, a behavioural economist at Cornell University, also questions the wisdom of making snacks constantly available. "If there is food visible, we break down and eat it," he says. "Even with food we don't like. We've done experiments mixing fish sauce with chicken so it smells like it has gone off and people still give in and eat it. If you put sweets out you end up eating them."
He suggests placing hurdles across the path to the snack trays. "It is amazing what inconvenience will do," he says. "It is best to keep it behind a counter and not on show. If you have to do a transaction with someone it will stop you from doing it – by asking for a brownie you might feel judged and stop asking."
He also casts doubt on offering free food. "Money makes a difference to how people choose their food. As soon you don't have to think about the financial transaction, you aren't thinking when you walk through the canteen."
Mr. Wanjek says a good canteen is dependent on a champion forcing through changes. He cites Robert Schad, the marathon-running health nut who founded Husky Injection Molding Systems, who was "passionate about health and wanted to impart [this to]his workers … There wasn't an unhealthy morsel of food in the whole facility. This was an investment … and [he]reaped the virtue of having the lowest accident rate in the industry."
Such investments, however, may be under threat as companies struggle. Mr. Thaler concedes that for many employers, "during a time of austerity, workplace canteens are not a top priority. But that is foolish. There is a great deal of concern over health-care expenses. In the U.S., these costs are shouldered by the employer. It is simply short-sighted to ignore measures that can improve employees' health."