June 15, 2012
Much has been made over the years about Google’s amazing employee perks, most notably their incredible company cafeterias, with their sushi bars, hand tossed pizzas, and made-to-order omelettes.
Google feels incredibly strongly about the importance of this perk – enough so that I know of two companies recently purchased by Google where literally the morning after the transactions closed the Google “Food Team” rolled into the acquired company’s offices to set up snack stands and lunch service stations. Google HR didn’t want these new employees to have even a single day pass in their lives as Googlers where they didn’t experience the full compliment of perks.
It sends a powerful message to employees about how the company is going to treat them, and I think that is a good thing. These cafeterias also encourage Googlers to stay in the office and eat with their colleagues, which no doubt makes some real contributions to inspiring collaboration and innovation.
I’ve had lunch at Google a few times, and it is indeed great. But this week I experienced a version of company-sponsored dining that taught me some brand new lessons about company culture.
A friend of mine is an angel investor in a NYC-based mobile wellness company called Noom. These guys are doing some really interesting stuff using highly sophisticated mobile experiences to promote wellness. The company is still pretty early stage, but they’ve got millions of active users of their cardio fitness and weight loss apps, and based on my playing around with the product, I think they’re on to something. But while their products are cool, what I think they’re most uniquely onto is building a powerful company culture that is rooted in values that are core to the business they are building.
A minute after walking into the Noom office I knew I was somewhere special. It’s a very comfortable, relaxed, and homey feeling place. The kind of environment that makes you want to sit down with a book or a sketchpad or a blank Word document and start thinking, learning, and creating. And wellness is all around you, with shelves stocked with books on wellness, yoga mats & balance bells, and a general healthy, zen-like vibe.
As co-founder Artem Petakov gave me a tour, it was clear that this was a very happy, connected, and productive bunch.
Artem explicitly invited me to come at lunchtime. A few minutes after my arrival, i understood why, as that enabled me to witness what I suspect is the keystone on which much of this tight-knit culture depends.
Around 12.15, a few team members came into a large meeting room that is adjacent to an open kitchen, broke apart the big conference table into two pieces, and arranged chairs around them. They set the table, and then called in the rest of the team. Jane, the company’s amazing chef, had laid out a gorgeous buffet of interesting and magnificent looking & smelling dishes. In keeping with the mission of a wellness company, everything was organic and very healthy.
The team dropped their work, filled their plates, and sat themselves around the tables. Artem and I joined them. It was a wonderful experience that felt far more like a family gathering than a business event. Thanksgiving dinner came to mind. The conversations were all over the place – some about work, but most not.
Twenty-25 minutes later everyone finished eating, cleared the tables, and went back to work. Jane did the dishes and then laid out snacks and set leftovers for the team to eat throughout the afternoon and evening.
I sat there for a bit afterwards, pondering what I had just witnessed in a mild state of awe.
It was so simple, after all – get the whole team together for lunch around a family table, give people a structured break from work, and foster connectivity and community amongst the team. This simple ritual completely reinforces the mission of the company – promoting wellness – by ensuring that every employee eats a highly nutritious meal at least once/day. (Not surprisingly, several employees commented that their delicious and healthy lunches had inspired them to change the way they ate outside of the office, too!)
It’s not cheap to do this, of course. Noom spends good money to offer such a high quality experience. It could likely be effectively done at half the cost, but Noom is making an I think reasonable choice to over-invest in exceptional natural cuisine as a way of doubling down on their company mission and values. For other companies, though, I would think that simple salads and sandwiches would do the trick.
But even at Noom’s high price, I’d bet the ranch that through the obvious value of the perk of a great lunch and, much more powerfully, the enhanced sense of community amongst the team, that extra expense will have a very material payback on employee retention over time. Again, this place genuinely felt like a family – something that is pure gold for a startup.
I’m going to talk to the CEOs of our companies about this and hopefully inspire some of them to adopt the “family lunch.”
Culture and community is such a critical element of startup success, and employee retention is so challenging in this hyper-competitive startup labor market, I’m not sure you can afford to NOT spend a little extra to inspire your team to truly become a family.