Culture   //   July 4, 2024

Maybe free food is enough to bring people back to the office

When Harry Gardiner checked his banking app to see his spending over the last few months, he had a nice surprise. His food bill had plummeted. It took him a minute to think how, at a time of inflated living costs, this was even possible. He quickly hit on it: he’d returned to the office.

Gardiner works at London-based digital marketing agency Climb Online which offers free food, coffee made by an in-house professional barista and paid-for happy hours. 

He’s managed to save hundreds of pounds simply by not buying his morning coffee and grabbing it at the office instead.

“When I know I will be going into the office, I will essentially just buy less on the weekend,” said Gardiner, who goes in on a hybrid schedule. “We had an after-work party that was fully catered. Because I knew that was happening, I didn’t end up going out and having dinner with friends. I invited them to the office and we saved quite a bit of money.”

Admittedly, it surprised him that free food and drinks would result in encouraging him to go back into the office. “If I’m in the office, I’m in central London already, I’m fed, which is great, and I can also pre-game and go from there,” said Gardiner. He jokes that maybe he is just easily incentivized, but in actuality, the cost of living crisis is hard to ignore across the globe. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $475.25 per month on groceries. And according to recent data from Payroll Integrations 2024 State of Employee Financial Wellness Report, 64% of employees say they’re financially unwell. In the U.S., recent reports indicate that inflation is trending in the right direction, but as Doug Sabella, CEO of Payroll Integrations, puts it: “People can barely afford to go out to dinner.” It’s a very similar situation in the U.K., where Gardiner works.

“It’s creating not only just a financial un-well crisis, but it’s also creating a stress crisis for people too,” said Sabella.

“It’s creating not only just a financial un-well crisis, but it’s also creating a stress crisis for people too.”
Doug Sabella, CEO of Payroll Integrations.

Since the beginning of the RTO conversation, it was common to hear that pizza parties and free bagels just wouldn’t be enough to encourage people to come back in. But, what if it actually is when more workers like Gardiner see an impact on their food spending?

More and more employers are trying to incentivize employees to come to the office for free food knowing this information, working with companies like ezCater and Sharebite to do so. For some workers, it can persuade them to come in, but it also has to make sense with other variables. Those include having a cheap and quick commute to the office, not needing to pay for childcare and ensuring that it works with their overall schedules. While that might be a slim part of a worker population, it is still helpful for people to know that if they do come into the office, they will be taken care of.

And while free food is one way to save money going into the office, workers also save on their home electricity, heating, and cooling bills, relying on their office’s energy instead.

“The correlation between how rampant inflation is and how it’s driven up costs, any area where an employee can feel like they’re going to gain an edge in terms of being able to save, is something they are going to consider,” said Sabella. “If RTO is one route for them, they will definitely look to that.”

Dilip Rao, CEO of Sharebite, a corporate meal benefits platform, says that they’ve seen an average utilization rate of 95% across their customers’ employees. Their customers include Lionsgate, Figma, Audible, and more. 

“The headlines are inflation is starting to come down, but that doesn’t mean prices go back to where they used to be,” said Rao. “They’re here and not going away. And, your wages haven’t gone up. People are really struggling and the cost of living is soaring.”

“The headlines are inflation is starting to come down, but that doesn’t mean prices go back to where they used to be.”
Dilip Rao, CEO of Sharebite.

If an employee has access to free food from their employer, that might mean cutting your weekly grocery bill in half, knowing that you don’t need to pay for lunch or snacks when you’re in the office. 

“You have to think about the plight of your workers,” said Rao. “You can’t just mandate a return to office without providing them with consideration. At least help alleviate the burden of coming into the office. Pay for their commute, pay for their breakfast, do something.”

Sharebite offers a Sharebite Passport, a meal allowance card that works wherever you go, as well as Sharebite Stations, which has helped encourage a return to the office. Rao says they’ve had 100s of companies that have implemented it for that reason.

ezCater is seeing the same story. Its most recent Food for Work report that surveyed 1,000 employees found that free food encouraged 86% of people to come to the workplace and 50% said that a free food perk would make them more likely to accept a job offer. Additionally, ezCater is seeing more interest from their customers to provide a recurring food benefit, rather than one that is tied to a special occasion or meeting.

“If you think about the average worker getting a free lunch every day, that can be $200 or more a month if they’re coming to the workplace frequently,” said ezCater’s CMO David Meiselman. “That’s substantial money when you think about a monthly budget.”

SeatGeek, one of their customers, started offering recurring daily meals more frequently after seeing the impact it had on incentivizing people to come to the office on its hybrid schedule. In fact, it resulted in-office attendance lifting by 5x. Because of that, instead of just offering free food three days a week, they now provide free meals all five days. That food perk is one that every employee can take advantage of, leaving them with full stomachs and the opportunity to connect over meals.

“It absolutely has an impact on the attendance, but it’s part of the employee experience,” said Meiselman.