October 11th, 2011 by Rich Armstrong
Buying lunch in lower Manhattan is not cheap. If you don’t brown-bag, you’re pretty much in for nine bucks, and more if you want to sit down. A meatball sub is $8.50. The Hanover Square Deli does a respectable dduk mandu guk for about $9.50. A meager-looking, but tasty, turkey and guacamole sandwich from British import Pret A Manger will set you back $6.75 (plus tax). Or, if you really want to eke out some savings, you can get a cup of soup and a hunk of bread for about $5.
At Fog Creek, we have our lunch catered every day. The cost of this to the company is $15.75 per person per day. Not counting drinks and snacks, this amounts to an extra $4,000 per year per employee. So why wouldn’t we just pay people $4,000 a year more? If they want to be frugal, they can buy that $5 soup and pocket the difference.
Well, first off, since lunch is a catered on-site meeting, the cost of that lunch is 100% deductible as a business expense. If you worked here, it’d cost the company $16 to give you $10 to go buy your own mediocre udon noodles. (Don’t take any taxability or corporate expense stuff here too seriously; I’m not an accountant or lawyer.) Second, Fog Creek’s free lunch is much more because of how it fits with the rest of our workspace and culture.
Free lunch is nothing new. Google and other big tech companies have been giving their employees breakfast and lunch (and sometimes dinner). Free lunch has been around for more than a decade because it works for attracting and retaining top talent. (Or, rather, people think it works.)
Now, the food at Google, and the people who make it, are awesome. The food at Fog Creek is good, but nowhere approaching what Google does. We don’t have Sam, the sushi chef, doing hand-rolls to order. We don’t do miso black cod, lamb shanks, or osso buco. We don’t have a raw vegan station with selections so delicious they attract the most dedicated carnivores.
Here’s what we have at Fog Creek instead: no meetings.
For us, lunch is our only recurring meeting. The only standing interruption in the day/week of a developer here. Everything else is ad hoc or temporary. (One exception is our quarterly meeting to go over financials and to grill the founders with questions.) The default at Fog Creek is no recurring meetings. Once you’ve established that, recurring meetings become the exception, rather than the rule, and tend to wither naturally as their usefulness degrades over time. For example, the FogBugz team is currently doing a stand-up meeting for fifteen minutes every day right before lunch, but this won’t last. The Trello team was doing them before and shortly after launch, but they’ve subsided.
The Kiln team lead assures me that their weekly stand-up is a real recurring meeting, but at some point they’re going to lose interest and go back to coding. It’s what they do. Meetings have a network effect. They need other meetings to legitimize them. If you’re constantly scheduled with meetings, you don’t mind being interrupted one more time. Or, rather, you don’t have the energy to protest. When you proceed from the assumption of no meetings, you have to expend effort to keep a meeting going.
It’s not all a playground, of course. There are downsides. Things, sometimes important things, don’t get communicated to the right people at the right time. More often than not, the worst result is hurt feelings or slight confusion. Sometimes it’s more than that. But we wouldn’t give it up.
For someone who’s used to a standard work environment, it seems silly, cult-like, possibly even daunting, to be “forced” to break bread with your colleagues every day. It seemed odd to me before I came here, but by the end of the first week, nothing seemed more natural. When most of your “socialization” with your colleagues takes the form of mandatory, recurring meetings over a conference table, it’s natural to not want to see them again over the lunch table. People have been making decisions about your time all day; at lunch, you need some time to yourself.
But when most of your time is spent working in a private office, taking breaks according to your natural attention span, having short chats with one or two colleagues, it’s a pleasant prospect to surface for some pleasant conversation about StarCraft or football with nice, intelligent people. And maybe you’ll hash out that new feature, too.
One can make the argument for free lunch based strictly on developer productivity. A free lunch could give you a hundred hours per year from your best people, time saved in driving, waiting in line, etc. But, consider the depressing ease with which such a gain can be wiped out by a few recurring meetings.
So, for our final post in this series, we do have a number: $15.75 per day. $4,000 per employee per year. It’s a lot of money. But without the rest of the company culture, it would be sort of meaningless. A sense of entitlement grows rapidly around any perk you offer, and lunch is no different.
A lot of this series has been based on getting hard data out there so that developers, our main audience, have an easier time talking to management about some of the things that’ll make them more happy, healthy, and productive. For this post, it’s a bit more difficult. You might get your boss to spend $16 a day, but changing the culture of meetings in any workplace is nearly impossible. (During my tenure, Google tried no-meeting Thursdays and formal meeting-reduction task forces, reminiscent of Brazil’s Ministry of Debureaucratization, to no avail.) It would require rebuilding the company culture from bedrock.
Our bedrock is the idea that, once we’ve hired good people, it’s the effort we make to direct their intention, rather than their attention, that creates value. It’s not just our lunch benefit that springs from that, but nearly every other thing we do.
For Fog Creek, our founding principles, and the pains we take to stick by them, are the price of developer happiness, and that can’t be measured in dollars.