In the old normal, every Friday lunchtime employees at ad agency Mellor & Smith used to receive a regular order of beers which they would drink, while chatting in the office and finishing up their work ahead of the weekend. Then the pandemic hit, upending work routines as everyone departed the office. The Friday beer tradition continued. Drinks were dispatched to staff who drank them at home while decompressing with colleagues over Zoom.
Paul Mellor, managing director, says drinks would have been the obvious cost to cut but he wanted to lift morale. “You can erode that culture if you make snap decisions around Covid.” Yet binding a remote workforce together faced challenges, particularly when it came to furloughed staff, who in the end continued to receive beers but did not join the online gathering. “It’s been a really tricky one for us to find the line of where someone’s been furloughed.”
For Adam Rogers, chief executive of DeskBeers, the company that Mr Mellor used for the deliveries, the Friday tradition was desperately welcome, as his business of sending bulk orders to workplaces had disintegrated overnight. While some clients “jumped at the chance” to send their orders to employees, he would be surprised if he was making 20 per cent of pre-lockdown sales. The new work-from-home model, sending drinks to multiple locations, created fresh challenges. “There [are] a lot more moving parts — more boxes to fold, tape, pack and ship, more labels to print. It's nothing we can't handle, but definitely more labour intensive — and less cost efficient — than before.”
As employers rethink their work patterns in the wake of the pandemic, with many offices remaining shut and others operating a hybrid model of workers moving between the workplace and home, they are seeking ways to sustain the company culture and morale. Food and drink has traditionally been one means to do this as both social lubricant and workplace perk and Silicon Valley’s tech groups had long competed for talent by providing flashy canteens and free snacks. (Google’s in-office snacks included dried seaweed and kombucha).
But as companies cut costs amid economic turmoil, such perks became unnecessary luxuries for many employers. Some, like Mr Mellor, are rewarding professionals working from home with food and drink deliveries. US food delivery company DoorDash says the pandemic increased demand for gift cards as a new work benefit, used by teams for a virtual lunch, as well as gifts to clients and for use at online conferences.
Deliveroo for Business, which previously delivered food to workplaces for meetings and functions, says that in recent months there has been a 25-fold increase in the number of companies providing virtual gift cards, driven by tech companies, followed by media and marketing. Friday lunches were the most popular time for Deliveroo for Business orders during the pandemic, with pizzas, burgers, Vietnamese and Poke Bowls the most popular choices among remote workers.
Bonusly, unsurprisingly for an employee rewards company, is giving its own workforce a budget of $20 twice a week for meal deliveries, as well as treats from local bakeries on employees’ birthdays and work anniversaries. Online retailer Asos provided a virtual baking class with Violet Bakery. Other companies provide online drinks tastings and cooking classes to forge bonds between remote teams.
Against a backdrop of job losses, such perks might seem frivolous. Glassdoor, the employer review site, found that more than half of UK employees working from home said office-based perks such as free food were less important to them. Instead, they wanted wellbeing benefits like mindfulness apps, private healthcare and access to online therapy.
Richard Greenwald, professor of history at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who researches work, believes the pandemic is prompting a recalibration of values, including about work among pampered professionals. “Luxuries are no longer necessities,” he points out. The age of coronavirus has also illuminated the risks being taken by people in jobs, such as cleaners and delivery couriers. “If you are being served food at home, you are just offshoring risk. Someone in a service job has to deliver it to you. People are asking those questions now,” he says. “If there’s a silver lining [to the pandemic it] could be that it brings our humanity back to focus and we start to think about privilege.”
As workers move between the office and home as governments encourage businesses to open, the future of workplace food is unclear.
Spencer Craig, co-founder of Pure, a UK healthy sandwich chain, says unlike the large delivery companies, his business has not managed to find a foothold among homeworkers. “We rely on people commuting, working in offices, having meetings in offices and flying and these things are not being done.”
He hopes that he will have a clearer idea of working patterns in September. “We’re all trying to figure out the new work-from-home consumer trends. It makes it hard to build the new infrastructure, such as kitchens nearer homes. No one knows how it will pan out.”
If the future of work is the hybrid model of home and office, he hopes that workers commuting to the workplace will want to treat themselves at lunchtimes in sandwich bars.
Catering and hospitality providers’ revenues have been hit by the closure of schools and workplaces. However, they insist that their offerings will be one way for employers to attract workers to the office. Compass and Sodexo, two big providers, have apps that allow employees to order food ahead of lunchtime to minimise contact in cafeterias and reduce queues. If homeworking continues, Russell Allen, founder of Crescendo, which organises corporate entertainment, hopes that employers will spend more on engaging their employees virtually. “They could use money [spent] on office space and put it in events,” he says.
Virtual entertaining has some benefits. George Blizzard says that pre-Covid she had struggled to get her PR Network, a virtual agency, to meet up in person, juggling last trains home and child care. After lockdown, she set up a virtual gin tasting. “People were feeling very isolated. It was nice — everyone was very open.”
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