Opinion: why WFH can disrupt more than the office space

Tim Smallwood FFCSI ponders the role of foodservice consultants in coaxing workers away from working from home (WFH) and back into the office

“Be intentional about your locational arrangements. Your location determines your allocation” – Martin Ugwu, economist and philanthropist

While many have had the luxury of working from home over the past few years, that is not the case for our clients and their staff, who, if they have had a job at all, have been essential workers regardless of the risk.

Now the convenience of working from home has become the normal and preferred over the “inconvenience of going into work or the office”. While this might make sense for call-center workers (I ordered a case of wine and found myself talking to a neighbor) but the benefit of sharing experience and the ability to quickly respond to issues cannot be effectively achieved over a Zoom or WhatsApp call.

Where the work is routine and methodical, working from home can be an obvious choice. But those involved need to be mindful that without their boss actually seeing them ‘at work’ the next logical step, if the work really is routine, is for them to be replaced by an AI algorithm.

The contradiction between the benefits and drawbacks of remote working are most obvious where creativity and innovation are required. Even the artist working alone in their studio needs audience feedback. In the same way a designer will also benefit from regular feedback on their work to avoid wasted effort. If the process of documenting the concept is so routine that it can be done remotely from home without any regular feedback, it can also be outsourced to anywhere in the world and once again, in time, completed by an AI algorithm.

The most efficient outcome

This ‘convenience’ for the employee of working from home frequently becomes an ‘inconvenience’ for the employer who needs a team working together as co-workers for the most efficient outcome. In a world where skilled and experienced workers are in demand, how does an employer encourage them back to the workplace without losing them to another, more amenable, employer.

This is where the foodservice consultant can help.

The amenities provided is one way an employer is able to differentiate their offer. While table tennis, gym and the provision of bike racks may benefit some, the most obvious benefit to all, is in the food and beverage offer and, in particular, the form and convenience of that offer. In most knowledge or office workplaces, the delivery of the meal benefit is outsourced to a contractor who delivers a service based on their standard approach and model. While tested and developed over time, the foodservice contractor model seldom varies from an acceptable performance made profitable through a charge to the client (as well as the customer). The model, while convenient for all parties, will not sufficiently differentiate from others to be a factor in encouraging staff to want to return to the workplace.

The ability to join friends and acquaintances for a coffee or a drink and chat during the day can be an obvious benefit to working from home. In other words, a social benefit. Whilst this convenience is provided in the office by the workplace cafeteria, there is little, if any, social pleasure in the same way as going to a local café or diner. If this social benefit of the downtown café can be provided within the workplace, it may help facilitate the transition from working from home to working in the office by providing a familiar environment.

A ‘street’ within the office

Foodservice consultants have a role to play here by imagining the possibilities of replicating the street level F&B offer within the business environment. Certainly, in city locations there may be cafes and eateries nearby, but they will require the employee to leave the building security; and the cafés will not be keen on customers that do not “spend” and take up tables. By replicating the street level, the business can achieve their staff social as well as nourishment needs as an alternative to a one size fits all cafeteria offer.

The current catering contractor will certainly suggest that they are able to offer all that the individual foodservice operators do, however it will seldom be achieved with the sense of individuality of choice required to make a difference: and they charge for it. By taking a street level operator into the workplace there can be advantages to both sides. The management advisory services (MAS) consultant develops the mix and tenancy or license operator contract so that individual operators benefit by having a captured custom, paying no rent or energy costs. In turn the business benefits by paying no contractor fees or being required to supply the specialized (for instance a pizza oven) or small equipment required; but they may have additional cleaning costs.

The design consultant will develop the individual food facilities BOH and work with the interior designer on the overall concept. It is important that this is not just a replication of the blandness of a food court with common seating: or equally from a design perspective not an extension of the office interiors. A dedicated interior design team with retail restaurant experience working separately from the team on the overall office fit-out can help ensure there is the visible difference to the ‘street’ level. The ‘work from home’ employee now has a place to call into during the day; to catch up with co-workers or friends face to face without necessarily being ‘in the office’.

Servicing office meetings and events can easily be addressed from the ‘street’ without having to be contracted out. The office street will inevitably include a coffee shop or snack and beverage outlet which would be capable of delivering meeting and events beverage and meal requirements and would certainly be an advantage to the operator’s business. Meeting participants may well also choose from any of the office ‘street food’ offers: pizza’s, sushi, subs, etc, for a change.

This service model primarily can work in an office environment and less so for a service business and not at all in an industrial setting. But the last, of necessity, is not where the “work from home” participants are found. By changing the office cafeteria to a familiar “home from home” street outlet, businesses may be able to encourage more of their staff to be positive about returning to the office.

Tim Smallwood FFCSI

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