Workplace Cultures – On the benefits of leaving your computer for lunch

I still clearly remember how odd I found the typical British lunchtime routines, when I first moved to London a few years ago. On my first day at work I joined my colleagues out of the office at lunch, only to find they just went across the road to the local Tesco supermarket to buy some sad and squishy sandwiches and crisps. Then we all went back to the office and everyone ate in front of their computers. No conversations, no chit chat, just browsing, typing and disgusting keyboards as a result. It was a bit sad, really. This may explain my excitement on the following day at work, when my male colleagues announced they would go to the cafe next door for lunch and who would join. All my female colleagues were sniffing at the idea, but I joined – eager to socialize over lunch, as I was used to in my previous jobs. Instead of a cafe we went to a caff (there is indeed a wikipedia entry on the ‘caff‘) – a subtle but important difference in English food culture. Typical greasy spoon, all food deep fried alongside builder’s brew cuppas. Needless to say, I joined in no more in the future on those excursions.

Things improved slightly when the office relocated to a hipper area in London, when we sometimes went out to an adjacent park together to have lunch in the summer sunshine. But then London weather is not very reliable, and this didn’t occur all that often. Now that I work at university with a more international crew of colleagues, I do sometimes go out for lunch, or attend one of the lovely lunch hour lectures on offer (to feed the brain as well). Still, I find myself often enough in front of my computer at lunch time, just as everyone else and I can’t say I particularly like this lunch time culture.

In Germany, in contrast, going for lunch together is important part of the workplace culture, in big multi-national corporations (Siemens for instance), in small or large research institutions (at Fraunhofer or Max-Planck-Institutes), at university, in manufacturing companies (like Sedus) – I have seen colleagues go for lunch together on a regular basis in many different places.

It is interesting how organisational cultures and cultures of a society at large interrelate in this case. In one of my favourite books on organisational theory, ‘Understanding Organisations’ by Charles Handy, the author argues that you can understand organisational cultures just like cultures of a society at large:

“Anyone who has spent any time in another country will appreciate how values, beliefs and cherished philosophies affect the way society is organised. They will appreciate too how these values and beliefs are shaped by history and tradition, by the climate, the kinds of work people do, the size of the country and its prosperity. So too, anyone who has spent time with any variety of organisations, or worked in more than two or three, will have been struck by the differing atmospheres, the differing ways of doing things, the differing levels of energy, of individual freedom, of kinds of personality. For organisations are as different and varied as the nations and societies of the world. The have differing cultures – sets of values and norms and beliefs – reflected in different structures and systems.”

So in essence, every organisation has slightly different ways of doing things, or in other words, their own unique organisational culture. Lunch time routines are certainly part of this. But then it seems that at the same time, the cultures of a society interfere with this uniqueness and result in higher levels of similarity among German organisations in contrast to British organisations.

What is even more interesting in my view are the results of these different lunch time routines. So what happens to interaction and communication patterns, if people are part of a lunch-going culture? Does that mean that people would in fact socialise more, bond more, trust each other more, collaborate more?

The research I did on organisational cultures and office buildings for my PhD ‘The Space-Organisation Relationship’ included a study of a research institute in Germany, where around 200 scientists of theoretical physics from all over the world  worked together.

Lunch time at the research institute's canteen

The institute was a truly international place, but of course since it was located in Germany, German nationals were the single biggest group with almost 38% of staff. Lunch time routines were very strong and several smaller groups of staff would go for lunch together, either to the canteen on site, to the nearby university canteen, or visiting one of the few cafes or bakeries in the local neighbourhood.

Having lunch together was not the only common daily routine in the institute. Some research groups met daily for afternoon tea, others spent structured breaks together where they discussed research, and another group met for project updates on a daily basis. What is fascinating, is that these time-space routines clearly have an effect on collaboration patterns and the strength of the relationship between people. In a questionnaire, I have asked staff to identify whom of their colleagues they find very useful to their research and have analysed this as a social network.

Network of usefulness at research institute

The image above shows this network of high usefulness for all staff (on the left) – people are distinguished by research group (which is shown as different colours). On the right, the network is reduced to those relationships that are considered mutually important, i.e. person A reported they found person B highly useful and vice versa. The main character of the relationship, or the nature of a tie is highlighted in this case as well, for instance researchers co-authoring papers together, those working in a project together, those in a supervisory relationship (e.g. PhD candidate and their supervisor) etc.

It appears that many of the emerging clusters are those engaged in a daily time-space routine, so it could be argued that going for lunch together or meeting every afternoon for a cup of tea and a chat on research helps create strong mutual relationships between researchers.

In today’s knowledge economy this is certainly important and opportunities for exchanging ideas are often to scarce in our busy working lives. So let’s get collectively away from our computers at lunch and spend some time together with our colleagues – I am convinced this is not only pleasant, but also good for productivity.

4 thoughts on “Workplace Cultures – On the benefits of leaving your computer for lunch

  1. I just moved from Paris to London 3 weeks ago and read your article with interest as I am experiencing a similar l”unch culture shock”! I wonder if we should form a lunch time club for foreigners in London who are tired of eating sandwiches alone in front of their computer?!

  2. Pingback: Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 1. The Office Is Not Dead | spaceandorganisation

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