A Taste of Things to Come

Three trends that could redefine the future of workplace fare.

By Carol Harnett

If you Google the term "silos at work," you'll receive almost 21 million hits, with many of the articles encouraging companies-both small and large-to smash these barriers to innovation and effectiveness. Yes, despite this, it appears these silos continue to be alive and well-and-embedded inside American businesses today.

One of my most-referenced stories when it comes to silos and employee benefits originated from my last experience as a corporate employee. Our CHRO released a well-written email describing the company's struggle to operate profitably in the face of several years of double-digit health-insurance-premium increases. As a result, employees would be required to take on more of the costs during the open-enrollment period.

We all know this HR leader spent endless hours reviewing the benefit-design changes as well as the level and kind of employee communications that would be needed. What she could not anticipate, however, was that the company's food service vendor relabeled the vending-machine choices the evening before the email was distributed as healthy and unhealthy selections. Licorice, Starburst, Fruit Chews and Skittles were prominently featured among the healthy choices.

Employees responded furiously when they recognized the disconnect between the company's call for healthy behaviors and the highlighted candies. The vendor explained its definition of a healthy food as one that contained fewer than 300 calories and less than 30 percent fat. Workers fired back with comments centered on a feeling of disrespect for their intelligence and common sense. The HR leaders found themselves engaged in a war they never anticipated-and all due to the company's silos between corporate purchasing and human resources.

It took more than five years for the HR executives to seamlessly integrate their employee health and benefits strategy with the food available at corporate locations around the country. It turns out the path they followed to achieve that goal largely mirrors advice I received during a radio interview with experts on providing healthy, delicious food at work.

While there are multiple steps involved in developing a corporate-food approach, three trends may define the future: the bubble-up strategy, treating employees like guests and partnering with farmers.

The bubble-up strategy. Almost every time people talk about a workplace issue and approach to address it, one of the first implementation requirements they underscore is C-suite buy-in. I've certainly included this tactic in the strategy work I've done. That's why Tom O'Connor caught my attention when he talked instead about the bubble-up method.

O'Connor, the owner of Seattle-based Market Fresh Fruit, is a biologist with a passion for providing employers and their employees with fresh fruit at work (an alternative for small employers without on-site cafeterias). In his company's experience, about 20 percent of his business comes from CEOs who are fit and healthy, and want the same for their employees. The remaining referrals "bubble up" from employees on the ground floor of the company who want an alternative to the candy dishes and other food options at work.

What's one of the best ways to find this type of employee request? From the tried-and-true employee survey. Not one that asks the standard multiple-choice questions, but a survey that includes one free-form question: What is one thing our company can do that would improve your health? And then be prepared to read, summarize and respond to the most common recommendations. It turns out fresh, whole fruit available at work is often one of the suggestions.

Treat employees like guests. Victoria Vega, the vice president of corporate culinary group operations at Unidine Corporate Culinary Group, uses words and phrases that capture the attention of anyone who works in or around employee benefits. Much like the Walt Disney Co., she refers to employees as guests. Vega references cafeterias as if they were Parisian cafés, and waxes on about fresh ingredients and scratch cooking. It's a refreshing way to consider how best to influence employee health.

Vega's stealth approach to providing food that tastes good and is healthy involves asking employees to sample various recipes before they're placed on the café menu. When workers see the items they selected in the cafeteria, they are more likely to purchase them.

And, as much as Vega wants to see workers make good selections, she recommends that employers offer choice. She points out that the café grill is the largest revenue driver, so it shouldn't be abandoned-but, you can offer employees hand-cut sweet potato fries alongside the usual choices.

Partner with local farmers. I live in a community where farms and fresh produce are prominent, so I've been aware of community-supported agriculture for awhile. In a CSA model, area residents purchase a share in the farmer's production before the growing season. This approach allows the farmers to plan their crops, and gives share owners access to a weekly bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Terry Walters is a cookbook author who is one of the leaders of the clean-eating movement. Walters is a proponent of bringing farmers and employers together through a CSA arrangement. It can be as simple for employers as allowing the farmers to sell shares to their employees and offering produce pick-up at the worksite. But it can also go one step further when the employer's cafeteria vendor also participates in the CSA. Since the on-site café is using locally sourced food, the offerings are fresh, flavorful and often less expensive.

Whether HR executives lead small or large organizations, they can influence the type of food available at work. There are a multitude of companies, for example, that will deliver fruit to the workplace. Even small employers can access this service; some companies fund it by using money originally targeted for employee-health coaching. Or employers can make an even bigger commitment by ensuring their cafeterias offer food in a way that supports employees' health.

No matter the direction companies choose, they should make certain that their approach to food matches their approach to employee benefits and well-being.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


Feb 10, 2015
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