Benefits Column

The Care and Feeding of Employees

Wellness expert Bob Merberg believes good food shouldn't be something employers are trying to convert employees to eat. Instead, he says, employer-provided food represents a need companies should be seeking to accommodate.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
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I recently participated on a webinar where listeners commented afterward that the panelists "made their heads hurt" due to the complexity of the issues we discussed.

This isn't the first time people accused me of causing brain cramps. The reality is that the deeper we dive into the sociologic and economic matters associated with workers' wants and needs, the more vexing the issues. Even deceptively simple topics such as the role of food in the workplace employ decision points that can feel as overwhelming as health-insurance-plan redesign.

I decided to revisit the topic of food at work after reading workplace wellness expert Bob Merberg's recent blog post. Bob is currently the manager of employee wellness at Rochester, N.Y.-based Paychex. In the article, he described the challenges associated with merging his company's employee health, wellness and productivity goals with the design of its corporate-dining program. The title of Bob's blog gives you a sense of his experience: "Wellness vs. Revenue: Tossing My Cookies about Corporate Dining."

Below are excerpts from a recent exchange Bob and I had on the topic of food in the workplace.

Harnett: Thank you for agreeing to write this column with me, Bob. I consulted once on a corporate dining program redesign. It took more than five years for the HR executives involved to seamlessly integrate their employee health and benefits strategy with the food available at their corporate locations. In your experience, how long did it take to employ a food-at-work initiative that met Paychex's goals?

Merberg: Your client's five-year time frame sounds frustrating, but not unreasonable. For us, it was an evolutionary process. Several years ago, Paychex introduced some of the common "nudges": charging less for healthier food, replacing impulse items like candy with fresh fruit and nuts, and so forth.

Three years ago, Paychex charged me with overall responsibility for our five Rochester cafés, and gave me the directive to accelerate the company's support for workers seeking healthier choices. I led the shift to a new dining-service vendor that's committed to wellness. That was the ultimate milestone. Now, from a well-being perspective, we have the cafés close to where we want them. But we'd never declare "mission accomplished."

Harnett: I like the idea of thinking about a project such as this one as an evolution. In my experience, our first hurdle was deciding: What constitutes a "healthy choice?" The growing variety of eating styles -- Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan -- made it increasingly difficult to satisfy all workers. How did you tackle these issues?

Merberg:  We serve fresh, whole, well-prepared menu items, which usually happen to be healthy. Back when the organization started differentiating prices based on nutritional quality, it deferred to U.S. dietary guidelines, which positioned high-fat and sugary foods as unhealthy.

Today, despite controversies, there tends to be agreement that vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and water can add up to nutritious eating. So we can always focus on what's known to be good, rather than what some may believe is bad.

Of course, we can accommodate most dietary preferences in our cafés.

Harnett:  I like the concept of focusing on foods that workers generally agree are good choices. But it seems to me that choosing meals is about more factors than healthy choices. When I had access to an employee café, my co-workers always knew when I was having a bad day. My tray would hold a cup of macaroni and cheese with tomato, and a small chocolate milk.

Merberg:  If you like macaroni and cheese, Carol, you'd be spoiled by our delicious homemade mac and cheese.

While employees increasingly demand healthy options -- and we make those options easy for them to identify -- we never market menu items as "healthy." There's no reason to do that, and the research indicates it's counterproductive. Instead, we promote our food as delicious and affordable -- and it is.

The bigger challenge is accommodating differences in taste. A lot of employees seek contemporary flavors, ethnic mainstays or creative pairings. But many favor steak-and-potatoes or the infamous Rochester "garbage plate."

So any time we delight some palates, we likely are turning off some others. There are always give-and-takes, which was the point of my "Tossing My Cookies" article.

Harnett:  You mentioned several sticking points in that post that related to the profitability of dining service, including: converting employees from "brown baggers" to people who purchased their meals at work; the decreased profitability of people nudged to make healthier food choices; and the increased sales volume thought to be associated with workers who used a cafeteria tray. How did you work your way through balancing financial goals with what you believed was best for employees?

Merberg: First, we listen to employees, including those who use our dining services and those who do not. We conduct annual dining surveys, hold focus groups, and have ongoing feedback channels. Then we draw on our learnings to make decisions the way we make most decisions affecting employees: based on what -- when we look at our actions as a whole -- offers the most value for the overall employee experience.

Sometimes this means employees might not get exactly what they want, and sometimes the organization spends a little bit more money or yields a bit on its well-being strategy.

My job is to make sure the end result contributes to an extraordinary employee value proposition that goes hand-in-hand with employee well-being. I hope this big-picture, employee-centric approach resonates with HR leaders and the way they make benefits decisions.

Harnett: Your food-at-work redesign took years to reach the point Paychex is at now. What advice would you offer to an HR executive who hasn't taken on the challenge of food in the workplace yet? How would you recommend starting an initiative?

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Merberg: If it's seen as your project, you'll have an uphill battle. Nutritional well-being -- just like employee engagement and quality assurance -- is everyone's job. Your responsibility is to rally your organization, so support for good food runs long and deep through the organization. In a lot of companies, this means starting with the highest level of leadership possible. Unfortunately, leaders can get stuck in an old way of thinking about food. Some assume workers should be placated with burgers, fries and sweets.

Assess your employees' needs -- using whatever means is right for your situation -- and use data to bring executives out of the Stone Age. Depending on your company's demographics, you'll probably find that employees want whole, fresh-food options. Good food isn't something you're trying to convert employees to eat. It's a need you're seeking to accommodate.

If you want to see what employees entering the workforce expect from food services, visit a college dining hall. It will provide evidence that workers increasingly expect employers to offer fresh, healthy and customizable food options.

Harnett: I know your experience with corporate dining is leading you to create a couple of new ventures, including Gig Goodies. What drove you to create this business?

Merberg: I founded Gig Goodies to help employers with a food issue that's previously flown under the radar.

Cafés and vending machines represent only a segment of the workplace food environment. At many offices, what some researchers have dubbed a "cake culture" prevails. Office workers are constantly surrounded by treats informally shared in the workplace, including birthday cakes, candy jars, girl scout cookies, and sweets passed around at meetings or used as rewards.

Everyone loves a piece of cake, but a new generation of employees is trying to improve their nutrition game. How can we support and empower employees who seek healthy options?

Gig Goodies is creating solutions to address the workplace foodscape -- largely via high-end employee recipe books and other media that rally employees to support each other's nutritional aspirations -- in a manner that delights employees and rejects judgment or coercion. It's super-exciting and I'm always happy to talk to employers about how to support a healthy workplace foodscape and tie it to their well-being strategy, communications, participant engagement and vendor management.

Harnett: Good luck with your new venture, Bob, and thank you for sharing your experience with the evolution of corporate dining at Paychex.

The most important points I took away from our exchange are: Employees' desire to eat healthy, delicious, affordable food; the reminder that we can "delight" our workers; and that a well-designed food-at-work program can bring value to the overall employee experience.

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.



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