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  • Good things happen when you open an organisation up, bring your people together and feed them.

    A workplace ritual that’s all about food

    As I walk into Jamie Oliver’s north London HQ at lunchtime it’s instantly clear where the organisation places its priorities. Straight ahead is a serving counter where two chefs are plating up vegetable curry. There’s a line of people waiting to be served and walking around chatting to colleagues is the man himself. Jamie.

    It’s unsurprising that the focus here is on food, but it’s the workspace that enables that to feed through to every part of the organisation.

    Jamie’s businesses have been based here for around a year. The building was a warehouse in a former life and the new layout has quite literally opened up the organisation. Whereas in their previous building departments lived on different floors, here the new space enables a company-wide coming-together across two vast open floors. The downstairs area looks like the lovechild of a Jamie’s Italian restaurant and a WeWork space, with lots of sofas, mismatched furniture, the bright, open space and of course, a kitchen.

    You get a sense that this light and airy space downstairs is the beating heart of the organisation. There are glimpses of Jamie’s personality everywhere. A map of Essex with “I f***ing love this place” printed across it, a photograph of his parents’ pub where he used to help out as a kid. Some of the furniture has been lifted from his restaurants; others are items he’s personally collected over the years.

    I know well the problems small organisations experience when departments are compartmentalised on separate floors. The company I worked for in the 90s was spread across five floors. There were few communal spaces and however much we tried to mix, the inevitable silos developed. The building limited our engagement with one another and ultimately stifled our culture.

    It’s clear that the new Jamie Oliver building has been transformational. The space provides plenty of opportunity for people to bump into each other as they wait in line for food or as they work at a shared table.

    The 12:30 communal lunch is at the heart of the culture, although it’s a ritual that’s evolved over time. It started when leftovers from the test kitchen and photo shoots were shared out with colleagues. At the same time there was a concern about employee well being: bringing in food from local takeaways wasn’t consistent with the healthy-eating values of the company. The solution? A £3 meal is now served most days of the week.

    What’s different about this canteen to most others I have seen is that only one dish is served. The fact that everyone has the same meal, regardless of role or department, is democratising. That shared experience — lived and breathed by over 100 people — is an important ritual. 12:30 matters. No internal meetings are allowed at that time.

    There’s no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’ but there’s ‘EAT’ in it

    Sharing a meal table with your team members is a sure-fire way of nurturing team spirit. Google is well-known for encouraging communal eating. When the company’s People Operations department studied the characteristics of perfect teams, it looked at the frequency particular people ate together and found that the most productive employees were those who rotated dining companions. That’s the reason the company has cafeterias in its offices: it hopes employees will make new connections.

    The global design firm IDEO takes communal eating one step further. IDEO chooses to have kitchens rather than cafeterias in each of their offices so employees can even cook meals together. “This is an important distinction,” says IDEO CEO Tim Brown. “Employees eat food that’s prepared for them in cafeterias. Families and cooks make food together in kitchens. Our kitchens are hives of community activity.”

    Something similar also happens here at Jamie Oliver HQ. On Friday mornings at 11:30 there’s a cookery class. Employees find a work buddy in the building to cook for, and then the two of them share the lunch together.

    None of what happens here has been contrived to nurture culture — the lunchtime ritual was an idea that evolved from Jamie himself. And yet with the new workspace enabling the coming together of the company, these communal eating habits are strengthening the company’s culture by default.

    Good things happen when you open an organisation up, bring your people together and feed them.

    Oh, and the veggie curry was really tasty too.

    Thanks to Darren Goldsby for inviting me in.