Each morning from 8:30 to 9:05 AM at our company’s headquarters, in San Francisco, we serve free breakfast to every employee. And I’m not talking about stale muffins and dry bagels. Today I ate a sloppy joe, cheesy scrambled eggs, home fries, crispy bacon, and sausage links. Healthy, I know. Tomorrow, I’m definitely going to grab a yogurt and some fruit. And don’t forget all the vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. After all, this is California.
I know what you’re thinking. Free food is the cost of admission to the Silicon Valley tech scene. Our startup, Pivotal, calls the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood home, alongside companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, Adobe, Slack, Salesforce, and Uber. So, of course, Pivotal serves free, catered meals. It’s just expected.
While that’s true, even if no other startup around us served free, catered meals, we still would. To explain why, I first need to explain how Pivotal works. Our approach is rooted in extreme programming and agile processes, and the foundation of our work environment is a pair programming culture. In other words, two software developers always work together. It’s a rule.
The pair has two monitors, two keyboards, and two mice, but only one computer. It’s a lot like a pilot and copilot working together. They each have their own controls, but they’re flying the same plane. So let’s say Developer A is typing, and Developer B gets an idea. Instead of handing over the keyboard and mouse, Developer A simply stops typing and lifts their hands. Developer B starts typing immediately. There’s no break in flow or train of thought.
This kind of collaboration means that there’s always two people available to help solve an engineering problem. If Developer A wins the lottery and quits the next day, Developer B was there for every step of the way and knows the code. Which brings me back to breakfast.
Reason #1: Free breakfast syncs the schedules of our workers
Free food, during a limited, half-hour window, both saves people some hassle and gets them to show up at the same time to kick off the workday.
To understand why this is so important, picture Pivotal without free breakfast. Let’s start with the obvious. Most developers would sleep late if it were up to them. They’d roll into the office around 10 or 11 AM. Which means they’d grab a coffee, maybe respond to a few emails, and then sync up with the team.
Before you know it, the morning is over and it’s time for lunch. But hey, that’s okay, we live in a digital world, and you can show up whenever, so long as you get your work done, right? Wrong. Pair programming only works when you have people to pair with. And that means you need to sync their schedules.
We ring a cowbell at 9:05 AM. (The Toronto office smacks a golden gong with a mallet.) It signals that breakfast is over and the office-wide meeting is about to start. After the five-minute standup, the teams have their own standup meetings, and then pairs break off to get rolling at their workstations.
Reason #2: Free breakfast syncs the energy levels of our workers
Let’s assume that you and I are paired up. However, you are a Type A individual who wakes up at 6 AM, gets in a six-mile run, whips up a balanced, healthy breakfast, and arrives in the office at 8:45 AM.
That’s not me. I’m not quite as motivated (in terms of my fitness) or organized (in terms of my time management). I wake up at 8 AM, barely enough time to shower and catch the subway. It’s all good, though, because we both get to work on time and sit down at our pairing workstation at 9:15 AM, right after the standups.
What do you think is going to happen around 10:30 AM? It’s fairly obvious. I didn’t eat breakfast, so I’m going to get hungry. I will start to think about getting something to eat and lose focus. Maybe I’ll even get hangry.
I’ll leave my partner and head over to the kitchen to scrounge something up. I might waste time looking for leftovers or deciding what I could snack on. In the process, I may see someone I haven’t spoken to in a while, and we’ll catch up. Next thing I know, 30 minutes have passed.
All the while, my partner has been steadily working away solo, with no one to review their work or bounce ideas off of. Because they had a healthy breakfast, they keep going until lunchtime. But I won’t break then, because I just ate.
Again, pairing only works when you are a pair. Free breakfast aligns not only our employees’ schedules but also their blood sugar levels.
Reason #3: Free breakfast encourages collaboration across the organization
Pretend that you and I worked together on a project once, but now we’re on different teams at Pivotal. But you’re working on something that’s totally relevant to what I’m working on, so it would be great to chat and share ideas. When’s that going to happen?
Due to the way Pivotal works — our small, focused teams breaking off into pairs for eight hours each day — the workday is intense and highly productive. There’s not really much time to interact with other people. You and I would have to schedule a meeting, which always takes a while, given everybody’s hectic schedules. Or we wait for a serendipitous moment, bumping into each other on the subway or in the restroom or in the elevator, a moment that may never come.
But we want those sit-downs and serendipity. We want a collaborative atmosphere that promotes knowledge transfer within and across disciplines. But that only happens when people are communicating and sharing.
That’s the third reason for serving free breakfast. You and I can grab a plate of healthy food and sit down at one of the tables in the cafeteria. It gives Pivotal employees and clients a daily window to discuss what they are currently working on, share war stories, and help each other.
What is your company’s version of free breakfast?
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are probably some of you economics skeptics out there thinking: There is no such thing as a free breakfast! I’m not going to get into the details, but I’m sure you can do the back-of-the-envelope math on what it costs to serve a hot, expansive, catered breakfast for 2,300 people across 21 office locations, day in and day out.
At first, maybe offering breakfast was the price of attracting talent in the competitive tech startup scene. But now we think it more than pays for itself. That’s because we’ve set it up in a way that helps our business do what it does best. Sure, it comes off the bottom line. But we make it push our top line further up.
I’m not saying your company should necessarily start offering free breakfast — it might not be what your company needs. But think of it this way. At Pivotal, we dish out free breakfast so employees can do their jobs better, just as we buy computers for them to work on. What could your company do that could be structured in a way to make you more competitive?
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