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Groups that eat together work better together

Those field suppers are about more than good grub; they're 'social glue'

Getting the farm crew together for a sit-down meal — even if it’s in the field or machinery shed — is about more than getting people fed a hot meal with a minimum of downtime.

It’s also good for business.

Cornell University researchers say workplaces that invest in good eats as well as good places to eat actually get a return on that investment. And what could be better than a home-cooked meal served in the great outdoors?

The Cornell research was focused on firefighter platoons, but the study’s authors say their findings have implications for any organization that wants to enhance team performance. Researchers found that firefighter platoons that eat meals together have better group job performance compared with firefighter teams that dine solo.

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“Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work,” said the study’s author, Kevin Kniffin, visiting assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in a release. “From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

Given the findings, organizations would do better to consider their expenditures on cafeterias as investments in employee performance, Kniffin said.

Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a large city’s fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The platoons that ate together most often also got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts.

In fact, the researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.

“Eating Together at the Firehouse: How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of Firefighters” appears in the current issue of Human Performance and is featured in the Harvard Business Review’s December issue.

The study was funded in part by Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences.

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