Skip to main content
leadership lab

Ashley O'Neill is vice-president of corporate strategy at CBRE.

If you've ever worked in an open office environment, you've likely found yourself set aback by the overpowering aroma of your colleagues' food choices as they chow down at their desks. Tyler is digging into a bowl of kimchi and did Lynn just reheat scallops in the communal microwave? With your olfactory sense on high alert, the strong waft has you distracted and your productivity shot. Welcome to "dining al desko".

This isn't a new or uncommon phenomenon. Search for #SadDeskLunch on Twitter and you'll be greeted with picture upon picture of people eating in front of computer screens, and a laundry list of how-to tips on avoiding the practice. It's so widespread that, according to research from Hartman Consulting Group, 62 per cent of workers report routinely repeating the act.

Every. Single. Day.

And while eating in isolation has been linked to stress and overeating, and obnoxious smells are known to distract, it's the unwanted crumbs left sitting on the desk and in the equipment that cause bacteria to grow. In fact, countless studies have shown most keyboards to have more bacteria than toilet bowls. A truly delicious stat to contemplate while you tuck into your egg-salad sandwich.

So, when CBRE decided to transform its offices across Canada, the million-dollar question was, "How do we mitigate the sometimes unhealthy relationship employees have with their desks, and promote wellness in the workplace?" Getting people to eat away from their desks is no small feat and is a fundamental change to the daily habits of many workers. We're increasingly spending longer hours at work and, if taking a quick bite at the desk means shaving 20 minutes off the day, that's a trade-off many are willing to make. However, the perceived time-saving is a fallacy.

We are targeting WELL Building Certification in our newly transformed downtown Toronto head office, the first building standard to focus on the health and wellness of the people that work in a space. We wanted to take this one step further and truly ingrain employee wellness into our culture, so we implemented a healthy desk policy, a Canadian first. The policy prohibits employees from eating at their desks in the interest of promoting physical and mental well-being in the workplace. It's not meant to be restrictive; rather, it's about creating an engaged environment where employees are encouraged to connect with colleagues and share ideas over a meal.

When telling people that eating lunch at their desk is "prohibited," you might expect a revolt, but executing such a large behavioural change requires a strategic approach. For CBRE, that meant regular communication with our people before, during and after the transformation. Effective change-management generates benefits for all parties at the table.

Consistently communicating the thinking and benefits behind the healthy-desk policy through implementation was only one part of the solution. We also had to provide our people a great venue to go have their meals. The cornerstone of the policy's success has been our RISE Café, strategically positioned on our floor plan to offer direct access to light and views, and a variety of seating options. The space caters to the mood you are in. If you're feeling chatty, you can sit at the harvest-style table. If you just want to read the paper or even gaze out onto the streets of Toronto, you can perch at the bar along the windows. The RISE Café also bolsters our culture of openness and transparency, as senior leadership is often found meeting with clients and employees alike, making them more accessible to our younger talent.

Eight months in, employees have wholeheartedly embraced the change. They are taking time away from their workstations to congregate for meals as they share ideas, and build social and business connections. But what about all that productive work time "lost" eating away from the desk? As a recovering sad-desk-lunch junkie, I now believe the question organizations need to ask should be, "Are your employees actually concentrating on work when dining al desko?" Chances are, probably not, as their attention is being diverted between the task at hand, the meal in hand and an ever-looming emotional spiral of social deprivation. Moreover, a recent University of Illinois study found that prolonged focus on a task can hinder performance, and that taking a break, or even a change in setting, can do wonders for creativity and productivity.

As with any policy, there is the odd infraction and occasional reminders are still sent around, but it has largely become a self-policing policy, as we have created an environment where people understand the benefits and see the value in getting away from their desks. They look forward to being in the RISE Café and connecting with colleagues, especially those they may not sit close to in the office. Corporately speaking, CBRE is reaping the benefits. Since the move, we have recorded substantially more multidiscipline business solutions being successfully executed for our clients – and that is a win on every front.

At the end of the day, we all need a little help to make healthier decisions, and our healthy-desk policy is a nudge in the right direction. Change is never easy, and breaking habits is even harder, but when you take action to improve your staff's health and wellness, the payoff equation is simple: Always treat employees the way you want them to treat your valued clients.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

Mark Mortensen of INSEAD discusses his findings about teamwork and how knowing what teams others are on can improve workflow

Special to Globe and Mail Update

Interact with The Globe