Piece of Work is a column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.
There was a time, at an old job of mine, when the snack options were so plentiful they required their own room: a closet filled with plastic freshness-preserving bins, like the kind the rich people I nannied for as a teenager had, full of cereals and Goldfish and wasabi peas and peanut-butter-filled pretzels. We also had a fro-yo machine, complete with a toppings bar, and on the first Tuesday of every month, we had birthday treats for any and all employees with a birthday that month: cupcakes, or doughnuts, or giant, gooey cookies. While working there, I made enough money to eat as much as I needed, and then some, as did most (if not all) of my co-workers. And yet, when birthday treats were announced, or a new fro-yo flavor debuted, we rushed the kitchens and pantries like starving children.
I regularly get mad at my well-fed, spoiled dog for lunging at every discarded sidewalk chicken bone she sees, but I am no better when it comes to free office food, and neither, I suspect, are you. Though I now work at an office that doesn’t routinely provide free food, on those blessed occasions snacks do become available, I will be one of the first alerted as a member of a Slack channel called “snackers-of-nymag,” which has nearly 200 members.
What is it about the workplace that makes snacking so serious an enterprise? Why do so many of us rise like the reanimated dead from our desks anytime the presence of anything free and edible is made known? I know it’s not hunger. It’s not even usually genuine interest. I have eaten so many small, bad cupcakes just because they are there. I don’t need any of this stuff, so why, when it isn’t there, do I feel somehow deprived?
I think there are a number of things going on here, psychologically. But let us first consider the human-resources angle: Snacks, actual studies show, can make employees happy. Or happier, anyway. In his book The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven G. Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, writes: “Snacks at meetings are a good predictor of positive feelings about meetings. Not only do people enjoy treats, snacks help build an upbeat mood state and foster camaraderie that can carry into the substance of the meeting itself.” It’s true: Who among us hasn’t taken refuge in the mediocre breakfast spread at an otherwise intolerably boring meeting? We know it’s bait, and we accept it willingly.
But what of snacks provided not at meetings — the snack drawers, or closets, ready to be picked over at anytime of day? Jessica Methot, a professor of human-resource management at Rutgers University, says this form of office snack is so prized because it enables us to take “micro-breaks” from work. “Snacking gives us a chance to step back from the work that we’re doing and recuperate,” she says. Most often, we seek these micro-breaks when we’re stressed, or frustrated, and we look to a packet of Cheez-Its to alleviate those feelings. According to Methot, and some academic research, this only works when the snack you select is “healthy.” From an organizational perspective, says Methot, leaders who want “healthy” employees are often motivated to “gamify” snacking by encouraging employees to snack publicly, in front of each other, where their co-workers will see what they choose to eat. “When we involve everyone in the act of eating, people tend to be healthier, but if we just leave a bunch of snacks out all day, and we leave it up to people to eat when they want, people eat a lot less healthy,” she says. To this I would say neither my employer nor yours knows more about what’s healthy for us than we do, and I’ll take a better health-care plan and 401(k) matching over a free seaweed packet any day. But I digress.
In any case, says Methot, though the belief that healthy snacking can positively impact worker productivity lives on, the research is mixed, at best — with one notable exception: caffeine. “If you’re drinking coffee or eating chocolate that has a high level of caffeine in it, it actually does help regulate our emotions, and improve our mood, but anything else doesn’t actually help,” says Methot.
Respectfully, I disagree. If the metric being measured here is worker performance, then sure. I doubt that contextless, frosted dog-face cookie I took from the Cut’s giveaway table made me a better writer. But in the moment I bit into it, and realized it was the good kind of free PR cookie, and not the typical cardboard kind, I knew happiness.
Which is, I think, where the second part of the story comes in: Choosing a snack is one of relatively few moments of true freedom each workday — and with this tiny bit of agency, we go truly crazy. My wife is an office manager, and I have learned from her experience to see the other side of employees’ long-waged battle for free, diverse, and extravagant workplace snacks. Shortly after she was hired, she revamped the entire snack section, providing her co-workers with high-ticket items like Babybel cheese, Cheerios, fruit, and hot Cheetos. For this, her co-workers thanked her profusely. And then they started to ask for things.
“Hi!!” one co-worker Slacked. “i wondered if we could get more healthy snacks like fresh fruit, please? we also used to get babybel cheese, which i really loved… ” The same co-worker went on to request more options “that aren’t heavily processed.”
I have memorized this anecdote because my wife told me about it in a daily post-work recap, and I was so horrified that I transcribed the story in full to someone else. Do we all behave this way? Do I behave this way?
I asked other office managers/office snack providers to weigh in, and basically — yes. We are all like this, and not only that: we are demanding, but also inconsistent. “There’s one guy who always insists that we get salads and other ‘healthy options’ and then literally never eats them,” an events manager told me. Another (former) provider describe the reaction to his decision to replace his co-workers’ Hostess-brand snack selection with V8 juice and granola bars as an “absolute uprising.”
When I asked these saintlike snack providers which snack was most favored in their office, answers varied widely:
“Cashews by far. I think it’s some kind of status/dude bro protein snack thing. There is a certain smugness about it.”
“Fiber One bars, specifically brownie flavored.”
Truly, the makings of a weird, digestively confusing feast.
But if our requests can be onerous, at times, and strangely specific, Methot says she thinks it’s a good thing when we’re given permission to make them. “If employees can see that their suggestions are being heeded, even if it’s just snacks, I actually think that’s good for employees feeling like they’re being heard,” she says. Haha. I am now both sad, and hungry: for cashews, for Snickers, for freedom.