Food is love
It’s a common expression. Food is the language of love. If you think about it, food was one of the first ways our parents showed their love. Cooking our preferred meals. Soothing us with soup when we had the sniffles. Surprising us with our favorite desserts. Food also has been at the center of famous peace treaties and detentes between opposing parties—from warring countries to brawling Real Housewives. Meals bring people together for peace, resolution, celebration, and togetherness.
If we accept that food is the language of love, it can become easier for businesses to find ways to express love in the workplace without it feeling contrived or icky.
Softway unintentionally started to use food in our culture of love to help our global team with a variety of dietary restrictions feel included, valued, and heard. Our humble beginnings saw our leaders cooking food initially for our first employees. As we grew, we still ate lunch together on many occasions. Even in our cold server rooms. We shared food prepared from home with each other. But we stopped halfway through our existence, blaming our busyness and workload. In 2016, we brought it back, not realizing this practice would help restore us to a higher-grossing business.
We returned to this tradition when our revenues and business were in decline. We are a digital agency whose business depends on the technological and creative prowess of our team, which are common needs in today’s modern workplace. It may not make sense to some business leaders because when revenues are at risk, culture and food spending are the first to go in financial governance (right before marketing—but that’s another conversation). Leaders at Softway believe that culture truly eats strategy for breakfast. We had to double down on our culture at that time and had to find creative and inexpensive ways to do so. Food was actually an easy way to get a struggling business with a fractured culture to outperform itself, passing our numbers from our heyday.
Food saved our culture then our business
Diversity & inclusion (D&I), as well as HR, practitioners around the world are always on the hunt to find and perfect ways to build inclusive and successful organizations where everyone is equally able to bring value to their organization.
We, too, have to handle religious diversity (Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Agnosticism, Judaism, and others), along with ethnic differences, dietary restrictions, and palette preferences. This complexity can persuade many to do the least regarding food, but we did the opposite and found ways to surprise and delight our teams. Just FYI: in 2018, the highest-rated cuisines for office meals were Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Mexican and Indian.
Despite the complexities, we learned that food is an easy frontier to ignite or further the journey of inclusion, which gave us a significant return on our investment. Here’s why:
I saw hard workers working harder.
Softway soon realized that food is one of the best motivators to get employees to stay, contribute, and find more time to give to a client problem or request. When we showed our team love by ordering them lunch, dinner, or snacks, our monthly revenues started to increase. We were accruing faster on projects because the team found more ways to solve customer problems together.
I saw teams celebrating and collaborating on their own.
In the time where so many companies are showing high numbers of disengaged employees, we saw this, too, when our business was at its lowest. Our practice of including food into our operations made it a supplemental factor for teams to celebrate small wins in a project or rush to the client’s aide in short order to collaborate on an emergency. Food helped our teams stay engaged emotionally and mentally without directives or threats.
I saw decision-makers remain present for quick pivots.
With the number of dietary restrictions and preferences, we saw that few people would eat together. No one thought to consider all of these in food ordering to keep project and initiative teams at the table. We saw that when people were taken care of and knew someone on the team could order on their behalf, absences reduced during mission-critical times. Teams were able to stay together during pivots or complex discussions in key phases of a project, which expedited our ability to deliver work through challenging problems.
I saw curiosity and discovery take form within the team.
The key to unlocking innovation within teams is helping them remain (or become) curious. With food exploration and experimentation, our teams started learning more about other cultures and diets. (Gulab jamun and biryani are now staples in some of our celebrations.) As our teams got exposed, they were able to appreciate the cultures and tastes of their peers, as well as their perspectives. Food initiated a new conversational frontier that helped teams innovate together, finding new ways to approach project challenges. These new experiences benefited our customers, who also got to have new experiences with cuisines they had never tried.
I saw teams caring for each other without instruction.
Contrary to what we thought, the teams didn’t see lunches and meals as an intrusion on their personal time, as most of it became self-organized. Once peers knew what one another liked, food became an esoteric language among teams. They surprised each other. When employees return from vacation or business travel, local treats are commonplace on desks and in our kitchen. This translates into successful project deliveries where no one struggles or the work isn’t sacrificed due to egos or blame. This care, or love, started through food.
These learnings were just some of the benefits we gained in establishing a more inclusive culture through food. Cutting food during difficult times may seem wise on paper. We thought that way, too. We took a risk, though, on our team to ensure their work product was not impacted in a downturn, as their hard work was the only way we could come out. We found other ways to save operational expenses that didn’t impact the culture we needed to survive and, eventually, thrive. So, when we say that we have a culture of love, we see that in our actions, not just words. We encourage business leaders to really find ways to show love to their teams. Food, especially thoughtful meals and treats, can be an easy expression of love.
And it’s here that we also learned that humans are definitely what they eat.