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Team-Building: Let The Commensality Commence
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Team-Building: Let The Commensality Commence - Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Let The Commensality Commence

Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Let The Commensality Commence

There’s little question that meals, especially when shared with others, are much more than sustenance. The hearth, dating to days when meals were cooked over fire, has long symbolized the family itself, and literature majors are taught in 100-level courses that a meal is always about either sex or communion. Although the representative roots of this daily ritual are long removed from concepts of survival and tribalism, it still makes sense for mealtime to be bonding time: meals are intimate, engaging all five senses in a socially casual way unmatched by any other. There are a few other daily activities that fully connect with us on a sensual level, but they are private, and certainly not the stuff of workplace interactions.

In regular workplace culture, a day often revolves around lunch. People think about lunch long before the designated time of day arrives, considering before leaving home what each day’s lunch plan will be. While each office denizen does his or her task, often separate from others in the office, lunch time brings people together in time and place (sociologists call it “commensality”), and when the meal is over, conversation is already begun about the next day’s lunch options. The hour is fertile ground for conversations about work, family, entertainment, and meals themselves, establishing the workplace as more than merely a location for getting a job done, and identifying participants as more than their job titles. It is a time for commonality.

It can be a lot more. One recent study of eighteen different firehouses reveals that firefighters who have meals together and share responsibilities in preparation, service, and clean-up do their jobs more effectively, cooperating better and functioning better in their interlocking roles. So important is the shared meal that firefighters who already had meals with their families at home would still participate in a second meal with their teams at work, and subjects who had differing dietary needs, such as vegetarians, would bring their own meals so they could still dine with the others.

The Fast Casual blog, whose readership is franchisees in a fast-growing restaurant niche, suggests the pre-shift meal, bringing together a whole crew with a common shift for conversation and casual time together before punching in, as a means toward building connections and collegial growth. One firm in downtown Honolulu allows work time every payday for one or two employees to distribute a menu, collect orders and payments, and pick up the “payday picnic” for the entire office, where participants dine together and suggest the next payday’s restaurant. The post-work dinner and drinks are another option for the company looking for simple-but-effective bonding. When executives initiate the call, sending emails to everyone in the office and offering to pick up the first drink, employees feel encouraged to show up and experience each other in a different setting. No ropes, no trust falls, and no forced touchy-feely stuff: just food and the interaction of your good people are all you need to develop good relationships.

There are cautions, of course. The Harvard Business Review warns against clique-forming, which can often happen in larger spaces such as the company cafeteria. Even the subjects in the firefighter study experienced some practices during meals which ostracized or “managed out” low performers. In offices where the lunch hour is unstructured but social, newcomers may have difficulty finding their relational and physical place, so it’s not a bad idea to make sure someone in the office “adopts” him or her, making sure to include the new person without too much pressure.

Whatever your approach, it’s difficult to argue against the bonding value of mealtime, something the human race has been aware of since the first email was carved into a rock. Take advantage of this central part of the workday, and keep an eye on it. Good team-building is often organic rather than forged, and with just a little bit of casual management, it can be far more valuable than any expensive team-building consultant armed with yarn, crayons, and a box of matches.

Reference Links:
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2015/12/team-building-in-the-cafeteria
How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of Firefighters: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08959285.2015.1021049
Fast Casual: http://www.fastcasual.com/blogs/the-pre-shift-meal-sometimes-simple-is-best-for-team-building/


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Team-Building: Let The Commensality Commence - Executive Leadership Articles

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