Cornell professors found that firefighter platoons who eat meals together have better group job performance compared with firefighter teams who dine solo. The study is in the Harvard Business Review's December issue.
"Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work," said the study's author, Kevin Kniffin. "From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today's workplaces."
Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a large city's fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked the department's 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to ten the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together in a typical work week. The platoons who ate together most often also received higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together obtained lower performance ratings.
In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6 p.m. often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse. One firefighter said you don't want to dis the wife by turning down the food she prepared and implied that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers. "To me, that's a good example of the importance of the group. It's comparable to his family," said Kniffin.
The researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they did not eat together. "It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked," Kniffin said.