Upgrade to Unlock

Podcasts are only available to Club members

Click here to upgrade

S7 E5 –Should modern workplaces ban eating ‘al desko’?

Most offices at lunchtime are full of workers wolfing down sandwiches and salads, sat in front of screens. The question that James, Jamie and Ben hope to answer is “should eating at office desks be banned?” What would you do if it was YOUR workplace?

Best soundbite: “Jamie has a catch phrase. ‘Are we getting lunch?!'” – Ben Ebbrell

Sync up Feast Your Ears with your podcast app so you can listen to this episode on the go. To set this up head here.

join the debate

27 Comments

  1. StacyH

    I also wanted to comment on the Google comment: my brother works for Google currently and he loves the fact that they feed him 3x a day and even goes in on the weekend for food (he cannot cook and doesn’t want to learn). He doesn’t think it’s amazing food though haha but it is good enough for him and it is useful. He does admit that he works longer hours and also on weekends to make up for eating there all the time. He is the kind to work a lot but somehow, he still has plenty of time to go out with friends (but his friends also work at Google so sometimes they “go out” to eat a Google haha), he goes on hikes, he travels, he is in a long distance relationship so he travels to see her, etc. Yeah….my brother is basically a unicorn.

    But in all seriousness, I think that by providing food, Google gets more work out of their employees, but if you are an employee, you can plan it so its a symbiotic relationship. It is difficult to do so because of the work culture but if you try it’s doable.

  2. StacyH

    I am honestly conflicted with this one but I do think it really depends on the job/workplace. I think some places such as an office or “typical” workspace, eating at your desk should be your choice. When I worked at an office job, I didn’t necessarily eat lunch at my desk but I always had snacks. The guy next to me ALWAYS ate lunch at his desk so he could leave early. The only issue that arose from that was smell. I’m Asian and I’m aware some of the food I eat isn’t pleasant for others so I won’t eat in the office but outside on the patio. The guy would also bring fragrant meals but will still eat at his desk and I know some people (me excluded bc it didn’t bother me) were not happy about it. The issue I had with him as he left a mess on his desk. So yeah, I have no problem with people eating at their desk as long as they are adults and clean up after themselves. Also, if they have strong-smelling foods (regardless if it smells “good” to them or not), be mindful. Be respectful.

    I now work in the hospital so I don’t have a “desk” to eat at. I also can’t leave the hospital to get food so I either get it from the cafeteria or bring it from home but as a nurse, I don’t have a lot of time to eat so I usually bring it from home and eat in the break room on my floor. It’s a bit of both worlds: I eat at my “desk” but I have the social interaction of anyone who is also taking their break. Do I think it’s healthy? Meh, but I have a few issues with how nursing shifts are handled in general.

    The reason I’d want to go out and eat is to explore the area and eat good food. I wouldn’t go out all the time (got bills to pay haha) but set up so that every other week I go out to a new restaurant. I would go by myself or with a friend. It’s nice to have a break from it all. I’m all about the work-life balance. Even if I brought food from home, it’s nice to sit outside and get a little vitamin D and warmth (it’s always so cold in buildings!). Even if I don’t physically leave the parking lot of work, sitting outside to eat is great.

    So yeah, taking a full break and leaving the desk to get your steps in, soak up some vitamin D, meet up with a friend, trying a new place or whatever is ideal to me. But having the option to work through lunch and go home early is great too for some. So I’d be against the ban but I would support encouragement to take real breaks for lunch.

    • StacyH

      Oh I forgot to mention when eating at your desk would be inappropriate….but I think it’s an obvious one: when you work in a sterile environment like labs or if you work in areas where there are some gnarly bugs you don’t want in your food like hospitals and such. Your work area needs to be clean for good reason…

  3. Jessica K.

    I work on a college campus in Michigan. Due to a recent re-org within my area, my team merged with another. We are moving into a new space which is taking two teams who are used to shared assigned offices and moving them into a “open office concept.” Some desks will be assigned, while most of them will not. Because of this, and just the culture of higher ed in general, we have been having “Space Norms” meetings and food was a prevalent subject matter.

    We had to make decisions as a bigger group on: if we can eat at our desk; which trash can do we use for our food waste; whether we can use the open meeting rooms as eating rooms; if we can have food in the meeting, huddle, “phone booth” rooms; if so, what kinds of foods (snacks vs sandwiches).

    For the most part, we decided that as adults, we should be just clean after ourselves since other people use the space (even the desks). Alot of people really got defensive with any “norms” that tried to limit where we can eat and what we can eat.

    I myself am guilty of largely going “al desko.” If I’m in a grove at work, but hungry AF, I like to grab my lunch, bring it back to my desk, and eat as I work. I also like to “go out” for lunch since there are many fun places on campus to eat. It’s also nice to step away from both the desk and the building. I’m the type of person that rarely brings lunch from home because I typically go with what I’m craving for the day.

    When we move into the new space, I feel like I would be the type of person that would just go out for lunch and stay out. If I do bring my lunch back, I would sit in the kitchen area, but I would be on my phone. Maybe I would chit chat with my co workers, maybe not….

  4. LadyPixelHeart

    I work in retail so I deal with people directly my entire shift. I like being alone on my lunch because I can sort of decompress and reset. I think at times people need to be able to clear their heads and some of us prefer to be alone.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I love getting together for lunch/dinner because there’s just something about good food and good conversations.

  5. nixoooon

    I have worked in a variety of jobs – call centre, retail and hospitality. I think the problem is more our values than anything else. Capitalism has taught us that the only way to be a productive member of society is to work yourself to the bone. The mention of Japan’s office culture is a big one: “he who works longest, works hardest”. It isn’t true. We’ve just been taught that by capitalism, and we lose sight of what’s important for ourselves.

    In a job of mine as a bartender, I often didn’t get breaks. In Australia, our hospitality unions work hard to make sure people know their rights, and one of our rights is a proper break for a meal if a shift is over 5 hours long. When I was doing the opening shift, I would start at 11 am and theoretically, have a break around 4 pm. That wasn’t normally the case. I would often be made to work through breaks and they’d adjust my timesheet at the end of my shift to imply that I’d had one, or I would have to beg for a break to just run to the petrol station across the street to get a sausage roll or something so I could actually keep working and not fall over from how hungry I was. It made me really resent working there, because I, as a member of staff, shouldn’t have to beg to be allowed to eat and sit down for a bit. After leaving that job, I was really upset and angry at the way we were treated, so moving on to my next workplace, I was cautious.

    My next workplace was a call centre for an alcohol distributor chain. We were strongly discouraged from eating lunch at our desks, especially because it’s a hot desk environment, so you might not be at that same desk the next day. I feel like it was more about cleanliness than encouraging social interaction, but it was great to have a designated time that I wouldn’t be at my desk, and I could actually chat to my friends who might be sitting somewhere else, or just sit on my own and listen to music or a podcast. It was great.

    I think it’s most important to remember that stopping work for half an hour probably won’t kill you. It might mean you have to work a little bit harder later in the day, but actually stopping work and stepping away from your desk is incredibly important. It isn’t healthy to be constantly thinking about work for 9 or 10 hours a day. You need to stop and have a break, even if it’s just 20 minutes that you spend outside eating a sandwich or something. Step back. Look at your priorities. Take care of yourself. You’ll be better off.

  6. VictoriaSC

    Generally “banning” things doesn’t work well as it causes resentment. I would love it if my workplace gave me options other than eating at my desk, but if they said I couldn’t, I’d be really annoyed that they were trying to control where I eat my lunch!

      • Oropher

        My first office job out of college (also an “open office” format) banned “al desko” eating. One of the agents had a fried pie from the Varsity, realized he couldn’t eat it at HIS desk, so he set it on the corner of MY desk until he could take it to the break room. It ended up leaving a huge grease stain on the corner of my desk that stayed there for 3 years!

        Speaking of “hygiene concerns,” this one agent would heat up her Jenny Craig meals in our microwave and then walk through our area back to her office. One day it smelled so bad that a couple people sniffed their armpits, wondering if they had BO.

  7. JoRo

    I’ve mentioned before that a big part of my job is supporting young people with a myriad of difficulties eating in a school, so my lunch break is actually spent working and we run sessions in my classroom so my lunch is eaten at my desk or a students desk (or half at my desk and half on a bean bag supporting a student like today), depends who I’m supporting, quite often as well as the physical difficulties we’re working on social skills and encouraging socialising while eating. This should be changing in the next couple of years as we get our new build which will give us a small dining room off the main canteen, meaning we can have a more “family” style lunch where we all sit together around a table and eat, which I will need to do a lot of work around to avoid chaos as there are several issues similar to those Ben mentioned (beyond “becomes overstimulated in the canteen”), we have young people who cannot handle the smell of other peoples food while they are eating (to the point of it causing them physical pain), others who are incredibly anxious about other people watching them eat and need some control over where they sit and who can see them, some who need access to a safe quiet space that’s not at the table once they’ve finished eating, and some with eating disorders who need supervision around things like access to bins. There’s also a lot to be said for perception, so most of the time my classroom is a teaching space, however as soon as lunch period starts we stop thinking of it as that and it becomes a therapeutic space, all work is away, the boards are cleaned, all stationery is away, tables are cleaned and moved around, the purpose of the space has changed to fit the need users at that time, it is their dining room and their therapy room.

    Many colleagues eat 2 meals a day at their desk because we have more work than time in the day. I do quite often eat my breakfast at my desk so I can multi-task when I get into work rather than get up a bit earlier, (because I really, really like sleep).

    School lunch periods are not long enough, we have our lunch break split into 2 sittings, 20 minutes each with 5 minutes change over, a lot of the students referred to me are referred because they simply can’t eat their lunch in that short amount of time.

    Having regular movement breaks across the working day does help to maintain focus, and social interactions are an important in supporting workplace wellbeing (from “yeah team!” to “we’re all in this together”) there is a lot to be said for seeking out workmates to eat with in either a communal dinning area or away from the workplace.

    This was an interesting topic and one I could say an awful lot more (also looking back at that first paragraph and thinking that’s the beginnings of a discussion that needs to be had at work).

  8. vsotardi

    Here in New Zealand, food is a daily part of the workplace.

    Although there are differences across organisations, food (kai) is shared at almost all formal meetings. This is primarily an influence from indigenous Pacific cultures, and I appreciate the notion that people are encouraged to not only “work” together, but to enjoy one another. There are a lot of social and cultural customs associated with food and eating in the New Zealand workplace, and these nuances are refreshing.

    You might find it interesting that although there is no legal requirement for an employer to provide tea and coffee during “morning tea” and “afternoon tea” (i.e., breaks), it would be extremely unusual for them not to. As a result, there is a relaxed workplace culture that regular interactions throughout the day.

    That said, I find myself overwhelmed by social interactions at work. I am a university lecturer, and so when I’m not teaching thousands of students in the lecture hall, I’m in my office space. My building has been re-designed with an open plan approach in mind, and I’m experiencing many of the frustrations expressed by others below. The purpose of such environments are to facilitate collaboration; however, they also prevent me from any quiet contemplation!

    I *wish* I could say I don’t eat al desko (I do love the term, though!), but I do–nearly every day.

    Cheers, Valerie

    • Sorted

      Thanks for your comment! Interesting to hear a different side of a workplace. By teaching thousands of students- sounds like actually, lunch desk eating is piece of bliss for you every day!

  9. Anita

    I would be furious if my workplace – from the above – wanted to prescribe what I can and cannot eat. Jamie’s right, that’s way too personal for me, too. The only person who can limit my food choices is me. 😀 I don’t mind rules, though, I’d even say I like them if I have a say in them.
    Anyway, this episode made me come to quite a few realizations: what I think would be ideal vs. what I usually do (I usually don’t work while eating but I like watching videos, calling my mom, my aunt who live far away, instead of chatting with others that are physically available or instead of simply being present with my food); it’s insane and so true that we tend to prioritize our virtual community over our colleagues, acquaintances; I also realized that I don’t think I could be so busy that I would skip meals on a daily basis. Even hearing other people say that they don’t have time to eat makes me upset. You’re right, it’s their choice not to have time for nourishing their bodies (brain included!), and to do something really important, I’m sure, instead. I know it’s their business, it’s just something I can’t relate to at all.

  10. rewatkins92

    I work in a nursery in the UK so I don’t have a desk. We get 10-15 minutes to eat something in between the morning session finishing and the afternoon session starting. Me and my colleagues stand in the kitchen to eat as we don’t have a table to sit at and eat. With such a small amount of time to eat we don’t have time to talk.

    Some people may say that this is unfair to us, however we have adapted to it and having the 10-15 minutes to eat is part of our routine now.

  11. Sorted

    Amazing to see so many polarising views here. Keep the comments a comin’!

  12. Annie1962

    Great job James!
    As others have mentioned, there is a place for having lunch at work.. certainly wouldn’t have been a good idea for me to eat lunch in the office in my day as an insurance worker – back in the day when info wasn’t really all on computer – some of it was on paper. Imagine the sauce spilling on someone’s written application for car insurance. That’d get you fired.
    Do I think it should be banned? No – UNLESS it poses a risk to the environment.

    A place I visit – a job centre – has a special room for making cups of teas and a table for sitting down to eat. There’s a fridge and a sink as well to clean up. Food in the fridge is labelled and on occasion I’ve heard of employees stealing someone’s lunch! Apart from that, I see that this room is a very social place and allows workers to sit down, eat and socialise. As a result, it’s a friendly environment and of course, great for customers as they get to deal with happy workers.
    A great way to enjoy the lunch break if a room is provided is the ol’ pot luck. Each worker brings a dish and all are shared ..
    I’m glad you talked about the chaotic environment of Sorted – but boys.. what’s happened to the Brownie points? Is it a case of ‘oops a bit too late to continue them’ ?

  13. karirin

    I agree it depends on the place and profession. i work in IT and i had to work in various countries. most of the companies have a contract set up with a cantine onsite and you had a 2 hour interval at lunch to go eat. for most, the company payed for it. it was part of the employee contract.
    on the other had you were not allowed to eat at the desk. and i was really happy with that.
    if you work in a 50 + person office and even 10 of them get food at the desk then the place will start to smell… real bad too. and if you work in a glass building then you can’t even air it out.

  14. alm477

    As you said, it REALLY depends on the profession and that places’ culture.

    I worked in a (coal) lab during college and food really wasn’t supposed to be eaten in lab spaces for safety reasons, so I would 100% stop and leave my work space to eat. Usually I’d eat with my dad since he worked there.

    At the shelter where I interned in grad school, the shelter staff would take a well defined 30 minutes, congregate in the main shelter office and eat together. Residents could reach us if they needed to (though usually honored the closed door unless urgent) and we had to answer the phone if it rang, but it gave the staff time to talk. Admittedly usually about work, but because of confidentiality reasons the people at work were the only ones you could talk about frustrations/feelings about work and were your main support system for that.

    At the rehab hospital where I interned, the case management department would take their 30 minute lunch (I think they had to actually clock out with their IDs) at the same time more or less every day, but we’d all eat at our desks and often chat/shout across the room to each other. Often we’d do paperwork while eating, but not always. My “pay” for being an intern was a free lunch from the cafeteria (and experience of course). But that was case management–I have no idea when the nursing staff got to eat. Medical/caring professions can be REALLY bad for eating (or any kind of break) because short staffing, frequent patient needs, and incredible volume of paperwork mean you’re always stretched thin. I have a friend who works in an elder care facility who developed a smoking habit because (labor laws be damned) that was the ONLY way she could get a break (not even to go to the bathroom).

    But most of my working career has been in a psychology lab academia where time means little and boundaries are thin (compared to working in administration where lunch times are regimented, but staggered so that most admin services are available). People regularly eat (their own personal) lunch during meetings or at their desks while working, all at different times. Meetings, moving your schedule around time zones and participants’ schedules means inconsistency. On the other hand, our boss doesn’t care if social time bleeds into work time so long as the work continues apace. They may not be true in other labs working even on the same floor as mine, but that would depend on the professor leading it. When I can I make a point of leaving work to eat with my dad (retired) on Fridays because we’d do that a lot during college and we both always looked forward to it. One of our Chinese grad students mentioned the wildly different culture for this type of lab at home vs the US. She said that at home your lab would eat together and your professor(s) would be MUCH more involved in your life than would be considered acceptable in the US.

    So about school lunches…I actually went to a high school where they did not require you to have a lunch period. That is, the school day was broken up into 8 time periods and if you wanted all 8 to be filled with classes that was 100% your choice (want to add a 9th by taking a class at the nearby university? Also fine). I can’t honestly tell you how many students chose to do this–it was/is a big school and you tended to track yourself into groups by academic interest/intensity. Few of my friends didn’t have lunch at all, but I would say most of us had a partial schedule where we’d have lunch 3 days a week and no lunch 2 days (at least for the last 2 years). School rules explicitly stated that students were allowed to eat in classrooms barring sensible safety/practicality concerns (gym, science labs, or vocal/instrumental music classes were Not safe/sensible), though teachers were varying levels of welcoming to food in class. I tried packing food on no-lunch-days for the first quarter of the year before giving up–most of the time I just didn’t eat between breakfast and getting home from school. A few years after I graduated they changed to block scheduling that guaranteed that all students got a lunch period. Which is for the best, frankly.

    I saw a recent article on too-short-school-lunches being a problem, so if you feel like being angry and/or sad: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/lunch-time-is-so-short-in-some-public-schools-students-are-going-hungry/2019/08/23/f97df454-c034-11e9-b873-63ace636af08_story.html

  15. alicia

    I work in the UK for an aerospace engineering company and as we do flexi time our lunch break is 45 minutes taken any time between 12 and 2.
    We are encouraged to not eat at our desks but the canteen is relatively small and busy and there’s a lot of people working in my building – you find that a lot of the older employees (50+) and the younger ones (18-21) will eat in the canteen but most others will eat at their desk

    I personally don’t agree with eating at your desk due to the reasons James mentioned as well as allergies e.g I have had an allergic reaction when hot desking after someone ate an egg sandwich at the desk

  16. Powerfulweak

    I’ve eaten at my desk nearly every lunch of my professional life (I’ve also killed a laptop with a venti americano spill). I work in marketing/sponsorship/event planning and I feel like every minute of my day counts. Why waste it when I could be eating and answering an email?
    My boss recently instituted a rule that, as a stress-cutting measure, I am not allowed to eat at my desk anymore and have to take my break. I’m struggling with this. It doesn’t take me 30 minutes to eat and I really don’t know what to do with myself the other 25 minutes.
    If I were given the choice between a 1/2 hour break and leaving early, I’d take leaving early (unfortunately not an option).

  17. SammiJMB

    I have a lot of thoughts on this topic! I work in a call centre with multiple teams working different shifts throughout the day, and as a result staggered break rotas of – usually – two fifteen minute coffee breaks either side of an hour for lunch. This is not a bad thing in theory, as you know when you can stop for a break, but in practise it’s not so easy as you can’t be certain you can conclude your interaction with your customers at the designated times. Just today, I was half an hour late getting away for both my lunch and my afternoon break. So even within teams you get people who are stuck working when their original intention was to take their break with a teammate or colleague from another team who has a similar break pattern that week. That person can’t continue working a little longer themselves since they risk getting stuck too.

    The structure of the workplace has such an impact on the break habits of its workers – we recently moved out of a purpose-built office that had a self-contained kitchen/dining area and a breakroom full of sofas on every floor. There weren’t necessarily enough spaces to accommodate everyone who was on break at any given time, so there were still people who were ‘al desko’ but if you have to go to the effort of going out to the microwave or the fridge you are more likely to stop at the tables to eat, particularly if someone you’re friendly with strikes up a conversation. Nowadays, the department is spread across three floors, with a little kitchen area on each floor and a dining/breakroom area on the middle floor which still doesn’t have enough seating to accommodate everyone. It’s been my experience that most people from the other floors – if they bothered to bring anything in – pop to their own floor’s kitchen to grab/heat up their food and then go back to their desks. Or they’ll go out to grab something from the shops/fast food places nearby and come back. Some particularly close workmates will huddle together at a specific set of desks for a chat while they eat, but this isn’t the norm. Management are very prone to eating ‘al desko’ while catching up on tasks they haven’t had the time to get to, but this has the unwanted side-effect of them being very likely to be interrupted by someone who needs to get advice on a customer’s query.

    I’ve tried many times to break the habit and actually head out of the office on my lunch – particularly when I’ve had a stressful day/week – but I’m also trying to bring my own food in more often and by the time I’ve eaten it I no longer feel like I have enough time to pop out. And there’s nowhere I can consistently go where I can take my food with me so, on days when I’m trying to use my lunch break to study, if I want to go sit somewhere I need to pay for a cup of tea at the very least. I am allowed to eat at my desk while officially on the clock, but this is not very easy when trying to deal with multiple customers at the same time and is likely very bad for digestion! I could, and sometimes do, study at my desk over lunch, but I’ve found I struggle to concentrate, so I tend to just read the news or something, but then go back to work feeling just as – if not more – mentally fatigued.

    Strong smelling food isn’t too much of a problem in our workplace – there’s often comments of “Wow that smells/looks immense!” – but it is considered a social faux pas to microwave something that has fish in it! It gets you especially dirty looks from the team that happens to be based right next to the kitchen…. Wasn’t so much of a problem in the old office, unless you took it back to your desk to eat, as there were two glass doors between the kitchen and the open plan office itself.

    I can’t imagine my employers ever banning eating at your desk, but if they did they would need to seriously increase the availability of places to sit in the break/kitchen areas! I suppose we should be grateful though, as when I first started in the company we didn’t have any break areas at all except for a single canteen on the top floor that we shared with all the other companies in the building, and only vending machines, fridges and tea-making facilities on the floors – we had to wash up our mugs in the bathrooms back then!

  18. mandaw0509@gmail.com

    This is an interesting topic that I actually have some experience with! I’ve worked at an office where anything but drinks with a closed lid were banned at your desk, so we were forced to eat in the lunch room. We also had to take a scheduled 10 minute break in the morning, a scheduled 30 minute lunch, and a scheduled 10 minute break in the afternoon.

    Being forced to eat in a communal area did force some interactions and conversations that might not have happened otherwise, which was nice (though there were sometimes concerns similar to what Ben mentioned, like if I was dieting, where someone might insist that I try their dessert and saying no just felt rude). However, because of rotating shifts we ended up mostly sitting at a table alone anyway. The majority of people would actually either leave the building, walk, eat in their car, or not eat at all.

    I’ve since worked at places where they allow breaks when and where you need, which I would massively advocate for. I don’t necessarily think that eating at office desks should be banned, but I agree that we could be all be better about being more mindful about how we use our break time. I also believe that companies could do more to incentivize their employees to share their free time (having food on hand 24/7 definitely helps!).

  19. Smidge

    I see office workers at my hospital doing this and it just comes off to me as a symptom of the organization staffing/distributing work so badly that employees can’t get a proper break away. It says that your break is not a break, but humans weren’t built to work the office jobs we’ve created, with constant mental strain and toil. We literally need actual, complete breaks away from our work. Eating at your desk, to me, is a sign of being devalued by your organization.

  20. Oropher

    I’m a staff accountant at a big American company in Atlanta. Our office is what’s called “open office concept” – lines of desks, no walls, no privacy. I refuse to eat at my desk at work because (1) I don’t want anyone smelling my food, and (2) as a person with lowgrade social anxiety, I don’t want these wankers watching me eat! They have a big “break room” area with fridges and microwaves, but it’s VERY open and noisy, and I don’t find it relaxing at all. I’ll go down to a little corner table in the building lobby and eat by myself, just to get away from people. So they don’t necessarily ban “al desko” eating, but the very setup of our office discourages it.

    However, when I go out during lunch with coworkers, I really enjoy myself. It’s a sociological construct and plays to my personality presets. Eating my salad with 75 coworkers milling around=bad; eating my salad in a restaurant where everyone else is eating =good.

    YouTube channel concept: Group work lunch challenge! One person has 1 hour to provide a lunch to the rest of the staff at SortedFood, and they get brownie points if the lunch is healthy and delicious!

    Good job hosting, James. You kept the conversation lively and on track. I’m really looking forward to more podcasts.

    • vsotardi

      My sentiments exactly about open plan workspaces, Oropher! Also, I agree–James did a brilliant job!

Submit a Comment