The 50 metre policy for feeding the 55,000

What snack can you get at work?

Google has a food policy. A 50 metre policy. They plan their office designs so that no employee is ever more than 150 metres from a food station.

The tech giant, a £250 billion global company, applies this to all of the major offices that their 55,000 staff work from. 50 metres, or roughly 150 feet, is about the same distance as half of a football pitch. Let me repeat, their 55,000 staff are no further than half a football pitch from food, 24/7/365, when in the office. That’s insane.

To maintain this unpublicised edict, a Google office will typically have a number of micro kitchens surrounding a central cafeteria. The result is that employees never have to leave the building for sustenance.  This is the hub and spoke solution to feed a tech army, and it works.

But with so much food within such easy reach, Google has an on-going battle on their hands. People, if given free rein, will consume more fats, sugars and salts than they should. It’s what we humans are hard-wired to eat when available.

In 2013, Google wanted their staff to eat healthier so it did what it does best, observe human behaviour. They obsessively analysed their staff’s food habits and re-engineered the cafeteria and kitchen layouts to encourage employees to eat better.

After digging in to cafeteria behaviour, they found people tended to fill their plates with the first thing that they see. So Google quickly reshuffled their cafeteria layouts so salad bars are now in that prime position at the entrance. They also discovered that people naturally fill their plate to the brim. So the original plates and take-away containers were replaced for smaller sizes. They even placed a sign saying “People who take big plates tend to eat more” for more obvious encouragement. Nobody wants to be *that* person who takes two plates of food after all.

Not only that, but portion control played a bit role. Deserts, a well-known speciality in the office given the full-time pastry chief being permanently on-call, were reduced in size. Previously those with a sweet tooth could make off with a slice or two of cake. Now deserts are all designed to disappear within three bites. The result is fewer calories being consumed whilst being just enough to satisfy those desert cravings.

Just needs a helping  nudge  to get started...

Just needs a helping nudge to get started...

The company also introduced a series of nudges to help employees make healthier choices. Nudging is a behavioural scientific theory that argues that through positive reinforcement and suggestive action, you can influence people to make better decisions (or to do what you want them to do).

When the company wanted employees to eat less calorific foods, for example, they colour-coded the food information displays to let people know what the healthiest foods to eat were. Green tags were used for the low-calorie options, amber for foods that should be eaten moderately, and red for desserts and other highly calorific options. This tactic encouraged employees towards eating healthier foods, so when people came back for more they could make the more informed choices their bodies would thank them for in later years.

Nudge theory also translates to physical ease of access. Google started a series of experiments to test these theories by moving and repackaging the snack foods they had in their kitchen areas.

From easy to use gravity feed dispensers...

From easy to use gravity feed dispensers...

Sweets are a fantastic example. They were transferred from a “gravity feed” dispenser into glass jars. The sweets were still there, but it was now harder for people to grab a handful as they walked past. This seemingly purely aesthetic change resulted in 3.1 million fewer calories being consumed from M&Ms alone in the 7 weeks after implementation in the New York office. In total the proportion of calories consumed by employees from sweets dropped an incredible 9% (from 29 to 20 percent). aesthetically pleasing glass sweet jars. aesthetically pleasing glass sweet jars.

I think everybody really enjoys natural, healthy food, we’re just too busy and we grab whatever is in front of us.
— Sofia Buschman, Google

The firm did not only test to reduce food and drink consumption. They also looked to discover how they could encourage, or nudge, employees to drink more water. After a few tweaks, employees started drinking 47% more water.

To encourage water to be drunk, they moved the water bottles in fridges to be eye level, whilst moving the fizzy drinks to the bottom shelf. As well as this, staff thought that it took too long to fill up their water bottles. They were busy people after all. So the company went on an in-house PR campaign to tell staff how quickly water could be filled up – it only took 7 seconds. It is understandable to see how these two simple nudges proved so effective.

The changes that Google have made to have their employees eat healthier have been really well received:

I’m being encouraged to be healthy. If anything, I’m grateful that a company that essentially needs me to do productive work to help them build their business actually cares to help me be a healthier individual. I can’t complain. Anybody who does is, perhaps, misguided.
— Sofia Buschman, Google

Why would they do this?

Google realised early on that by providing unlimited free food to their staff they would maximise employee productivity whilst simultaneously building loyalty.

Does it really work?

Google is a £250 billion valued company. This 17 year-old firm generated revenues of £43.6 billion in 2014, and are still growing. You can formulate your own opinion if it has been successful or not.

Just in case you aren't convinced, bear in mind they are the ones best placed to monitor, analyse and judge the effectiveness of their food programme. What you should know is that this company don’t look like withdrawing this staff food perk anytime soon. Actually we shouldn’t call it a "perk" because that is not what it is. It’s more than that. Free food for all staff has become a Google doctrine. 

You should also be aware that Google aren't alone. If you look towards Silicon Valley darlings Facebook, or to financial news and software company Bloomberg or, even closer to home, Wiltshire-based innovative designers Dyson with their Michelin starred head chef, free food provision for employees in the office is swiftly becoming adopted as a rite for staff. 

So if the largest companies, the sharpest management minds and even your favourite grandmother are providing free food to build loyalty, is it perhaps time that you looked at providing food to your staff too?

What's the best food you have ever had at work and who paid for it?