Catering and the workplace revolution

Chris Stern, Managing Director at Stern Consultancy argues that it’s been creeping up on us for a while and “agile” workspace is well and truly here.

With an increasing number of people working outside of their formal offices, is the casual way of working now here to stay? 

To some extent more people working away from the office is an antidote to those open plans rows of desks which look pretty depressing places to work. It also allows organisations to limit their physical footprint and therefore operate more profitably. There’s also a whole wellbeing piece being recognised by organisations, influencing the look, feel and facilities in the workplace.

All this is facilitated by the Cloud, meaning we need less access to physical, static document. There’s also the prevalence of working on laptops, allowing us to be completely mobile.

So, when people are in the workplace, it’s all about informal and formal meeting spaces and quiet spots to sit down and focus on catching up with the outcomes of all those meetings. And what do these people also expect? Food and drink.

We’ve all seen how the high street has become dominated by catering outlets of every type, often with identical brands within metres of each other. It’s indicative of our expectation of being able to get what we want without moving more than a few metres from where we may be working.

As organisations refurbish their workspaces or move into new ones, they are often designing them with this more casual way of working in mind, with multiple environments conveniently located across the space, always obviously embracing the old concept of hot desking.

What has not always been thought through is how important catering can be to support these new spaces. To make them truly viable and as appealing as the external environment, it’s essential that catering is incorporated in the design. The spaces must be somewhere people want go rather than have to go.

The easy wins are the inclusion of a free hot beverage point close to key collaboration areas. We’re seeing these increasingly including free fruit or even free canned drinks (though spare a thought for the challenges associated with excessive sugar intake with these), to encourage their use and to burnish the wellbeing and environmental credentials of the employer.

These can cause some tension with a staff dining facility, where a more commercial approach is now commonplace, meaning that setting up free coffee points can cannibalise what can be the most profitable element of the paid-for dining service. Oddly however, even when there’s high quality free issue coffee available, we often see a professionally-run barista served coffee offer, charging near-commercial prices still working, albeit not with the volumes you might see without that free competition.

It’s all actually starting even before people get to the workplace, with catering becoming a critical part of the higher/further education offer. Here, it’s all about the student experience, which is increasingly an important differentiator between universities

– and I thought it was all about the learning! As universities and colleges develop their campuses, we are seeing catering being built in. Here, it’s essential that it’s flexible to reflect the huge population swings throughout the year. Pop ups are a necessity, and handily reflect what we see in the ever- growing street food markets. Boutique, local brands with interesting and very international food concepts are the way forward. The days of it all being about nutrition and balanced menus are disappearing fast, with the commercial imperative and customer satisfaction dominating. Luckily, it’s a virtuous circle with the increased sales these appealing food offers deliver, driving sales and profitability and therefore creating commercially viable facilities. Wellbeing is now also being factored in not only in terms of the food on offer, but also in relation to the layout of dining environments.

This trend is now morphing into the workplace, probably in a more sophisticated and sometimes slightly less commercial way, as employers may have additional targets to achieve through their catering offer, such as increased collaboration or even good old high levels of service to support their hard working people. Indeed, there’s also an argument that there may be some value in sacrificing a little of the commercial performance of catering outlets in return for subsidised healthy foods, the value of which can be reflected in a healthier, more productive workforce.

The trend away from a tray with meat and two veg, a hot pudding and a cold drink is well and truly established. Hand-held food, freshly prepared in front of the customer (often a clever illusion) for them to grab and go. Traditional meals are stretching and opening times are reflecting this. Companies are finding they can make use of what may have been dead space outside of meal times for informal meetings and even those infamous “casual collisions”, as coined by Google

I loved a recent analogy which suggested staff restaurants are like the Titanic, whilst what we really need are multiple speedboats. This may be a little extreme, as there is probably always going to be room for the traditional in some environments. What is clear however is that catering should now be considered as a core part of any working environment and should ideally be designed in from the outset.