I was thinking about companies that serve free food (few companies) or coffee (almost everyone). While there are some emotional reasons companies do this, e.g., showing appreciation for workers or desire to keep them healthy, I think there are solid business reasons to do this.
Providing Spaces For Lunch (or Buying Lunch for the Company) Sparks Innovation
Gathering everyone together for lunch naturally sparks ideas. I remember the story from The Psychology of Computer Programming where Gerald Weinberg talks about management removing the water cooler from the office because they noticed that employees were always around it. Once the water cooler was removed, productivity plummeted. As it turns out, the water cooler was a hub of informal knowledge transfer. I liked this quote from Peter Diamandis’s piece From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation because they talked about 18th century coffeehouses — the non-work places where great ideas were sparked.
The coffeehouse was a hub for information sharing. These new establishments drew people from all walks of life. Suddenly the rabble could party alongside the royals, and this allowed all sorts of novel notions to begin to meet and mingle and, as Matt Ridley says, “have sex.” In his book London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite explains it this way “The London coffee-houses provided a gathering place where, for a penny admission charge, any man who was reasonably dressed could smoke his long, clay pipe, sip a dish of coffee, read the newsletters of the day, or enter into conversation with other patrons. At the period when journalism was in its infancy and the postal system was unorganized and irregular, the coffee-house provided a center of communication for news and information… Naturally, this dissemination of news led to the dissemination of ideas, and the coffee-house served as a forum for their discussion.”
Serving Coffee as a Drug Delivery System
I always wondered why coffee was available in every office I’ve worked in. First I thought it was a perk for employees. Now I realize it’s a drug delivery system. Caffeine is one of the most powerful drugs known to man. By keeping employees hopped up on coffee, you can make them a lot more productive. But keeping caffeine pills by the water fountain seems so vulgar — so we are left with coffee. As Diamandis says:
In his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson explores the impact of coffeehouses on the Enlightenment culture of the 18th century. “It’s no accident,” he says, “that the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages.” There are two main drivers at work here. The first is that before the discovery of coffee, much of the world was intoxicated much of the day. This was mostly a health issue. Water was too polluted to drink, so beer was the beverage of choice. In his New Yorker essay “Java Man,” Malcolm Gladwell explains it this way: “Until the 18th century, it must be remembered, many Westerners drank beer almost continuously, even beginning their day with something called “beer soup.” Now they begin each day with a strong cup of coffee. One way to explain the industrial revolution is as the inevitable consequence of a world where people suddenly preferred being jittery to being drunk.”
So eat, drink and be innovative!
Note 1: I once saw this hanging in an office:
Note 2: Michael Pollan has a great audiobook Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World which goes into way more detail on the drug.