Did you know that today is National Quiche Lorraine Day? Or that May is National Hamburger Month? These holidays might seem frivolous, but they reflect something big about society: We’re obsessed with food.

Most social gatherings revolve around it — think barbecues, family dinners and Sunday brunches. Even when we’re not eating, we’re often consuming it in another form; food is the most-photographed subject on Instagram, and food-related TV has been popular for decades. With food so important in our lives, what role does it play in the workplace? And can free food at work be used as a tactic to attract and retain talent?

Though there are still many offices where employees fight over the last donut, the number of companies offering free snacks and beverages is on the rise. Studies show that 32% of companies offered free refreshments in 2018, up from 20% in 2014.

From 2014-2018, more companies are offering free refreshments.
This graph demonstrates that a greater number of companies are offering free refreshments. From 2014 to 2018, the percentage of companies offering free snacks and beverages rose from 20% in 2014 to over 30% in 2018.

This perk may seem extravagant, but there are good reasons some companies are giving employees a “free lunch” at work. Here are a few of them.

Free food at work can actually be cost-effective

Though offering food at work is an added cost, companies can actually end up increasing productivity and their bottom line by providing it. Why? Employees often leave the office for snacks or coffee, and a quick coffee break can easily turn into half an hour or more away from work. Depending on their hourly rate, it can be more cost-effective to offer free food at work if it gets employees to work even another half-hour a day.

Imagine an employee who makes $85,000 once benefits are included. At 40 hours per week, this person is being compensated the equivalent of $40 per hour — or $20 per half-hour. Spending $10 per day on this employee’s refreshments would actually save your company $10 each day if that person worked another half an hour instead of going to a coffee shop!

Offering food at work encourages mingling

Long gone are the days of being chastised for spending too much time around the water cooler; many companies now want employees to mingle more. This is because the new age of flexible schedules, remote work and video calls can result in employees interacting less — and missing out on ideas that arise organically during informal conversation.

To support unstructured social time and encourage colleagues on different teams to meet, Google and other tech companies have designed their offices to make people bump into one another. These planned run-ins are known as “serendipitous interaction.”

What better way to encourage discussion with colleagues than over coffee or lunch that you provide? You can encourage this further with your seating arrangements: Companies that provide food at work often set up dining tables in long rows as opposed to smaller groups so employees are more likely to socialize during meals or breaks.

Offering free food at work helps with retention

Yes, free food and drinks can actually help morale. A survey of over 1,000 full-time workers conducted by Peapod, an online grocer, found that more than half of people (56%) are “extremely” or “very happy” at their current jobs. However, that number jumps to 67% for employees who have free food at work.

67% of employees who get free food at work are happier.
According to the data, 56% of workers are "very" or "extremely" happy at their jobs, but 67% of workers who have free food at work are "very" or "extremely" happy at their jobs.

Losing unhappy employees affects how your business runs on a daily basis — and it’s also costly and time-consuming. The average cost of a new hire is $4,245 (the equivalent of $17 per day on food in a year), which can skyrocket to $14,936 to replace executives, and you’ll have to spend that every time you lose an unhappy worker. What’s more, it can take over 90 days to replace highly skilled workers. It pays off to offer employees free lunch at work! 

The average cost per new hire is $4,425 and the average cost per new executive hire is $14,936.
The average cost per new hire is $4,425 and the average cost per new executive hire is $14,936.

Free food is effective in any quantity

Few companies provide fully or partially subsidized cafeterias (just 12% in 2018), though some are taking it to the next level and providing gourmet options. There was even a rumor that the Dropbox cafeteria had been awarded a Michelin star.

If you balk at the cost of giving every employee lunch, or the logistics of cooking and accommodating special dietary needs, start small with coffee and snacks. For a minimal cost, you can boost employee satisfaction, keep them from running out for coffee and benefit from the socializing quick in-office breaks provide.

And if it’s not in your budget to provide free food at work every day, consider once a week — for example, “bagel and coffee Fridays.” With only one-third of offices giving employees free snacks and drinks, even a simple offering can help you stand out from the competition.

Offering employees free food at work can save you money, bring workers together and keep them around longer — letting everybody win.