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In Singapore offices, food rules the roost

If you want to keep 'em, feed 'em.

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IT is no exaggeration that this country is obsessed with food. Even before we have digested our Christmas turkey from last year, we were already dreaming of steamboats and bak kwa.

But our preoccupation with all things edible is not just confined to our homes and private spaces; it is most evidently seen and felt in the office.

More bosses are starting to realise that, wallets aside, the way to an employee's heart may be through the stomach. You know what they say about an office that eats together. No, they don't just grow fat - they stay together.

"Food is one of the top perks that employees value. Employees bond over good food. This is when they open up and interact with one another," says Maria Yang, regional HR operations manager of JobStreet.com and jobsDB.

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Studies have shown that employees who have lunch with others are also more likely to be more creative, engaged at work, and more likely to stay on with employers. Leong Chee Tung, co-founder and CEO of HR startup EngageRocket, adds: "If you're spending your lunch hour voluntarily with colleagues, you're more likely to build friendships at work and have improved team dynamics. You'll also actually be healthier than others who eat in front of their computers."

Ouch! Note to self: Get off my bum and join colleagues for lunch later.

But while companies that offer free food in pantries are sometimes dismissed as hype, it seems that they may be on to something.

Mr Leong says that the positive effects are felt in two ways. "First, new employees may get a temporary engagement lift, especially if this is a new perk that they didn't receive before."

But when the novelty wears off, the second positive effect kicks in. He says that spaces for employees to gather - such as the food pantry - can lead to "serendipitous interactions" that would otherwise not happen. This, he believes, can boost innovation and cross-departmental teamwork.

Facebook, well-known for its generous food perks, is one company that exemplifies this. "Our work spaces, cafeteria, well-stocked micro-kitchens and Beer Garden are designed as open areas to encourage employees to connect and collaborate," say Eriko Talley, head of HR, APAC, Facebook. She added that such an environment enables staff to "refuel and re-energise throughout the day".

Even for companies without deep pockets, there are still many simple and affordable ways that food can be a part of the equation. Ms Yang says casual sessions such as monthly birthday celebrations and team lunches is one way that shows the company takes an interest in staff and values them.

"For focus group discussions and any engagement activities, managers can consider scheduling breakfast sessions. A good breakfast also makes it easier to switch into the right mood for work," she suggested.

Over here at The Business Times, no one will ever turn up for a breakfast meeting because of our later hours, but we do have a weekly equivalent, famously known as Thirsty Thursdays.

Every Thursday evening, we gather at the usual place (fondly known as TUP) in the middle of our office for food and wine. Our feasts can get pretty epic. The most recent one had lo hei, as well as Korean fried chicken galore. To usher in the Year of the Rooster, obviously.

In BT, it seems that every tradition of ours has food involved. From day one, every new person who joins us is educated on the drill: Promotions, awards, first byline, first page one story - these are all occasions for treats. And no, interns are not exempted.

But honestly, even if there is no occasion to makan, we somehow will find one. An editor of ours ordered in pizza for the whole newsroom once because he was bored. Another lucky colleague of ours treated for having struck the lottery - twice.

Someone once joked that the best way to poison the office is to just put the food at TUP. Everything - even stale cookies and leftover food - gets snapped up in minutes.

But the point that I'm trying to make is not that BT staff are greedy (even if we are) or that we have a big budget. It's that food plays such a big role in office culture and we don't even realise it.

It's definitely an expense on the balance sheet, but I can't think of a better way to bring staff from different functions together to chat, take a break from the daily grind and generally just brighten up everyone's day for a bit. If not to boost productivity and employee engagement then, Lord knows, we need a bit of cheer in these increasingly bleak times.

As I am writing this, I can already hear the voices of business leaders saying that such a concept is not realistic in a poor economy where bonuses are cut and layoffs taking place like mushrooms after the rain.

I get it. But it's precisely such a season as this, when morale is at an all-time low, that bosses should be stepping up and finding opportunities to share updates and have real talk, be it over a coffee or even fried chicken.

I think what employees really want, deep down, is not free food, but to know that they have the support and understanding of management. There are many things out there that can't be helped, but if managers make the effort to have a simple meal with staff every once in a while, you will be surprised at just how willing workers are ready to stand in solidarity during tough times.

There's just something fundamentally uplifting about breaking bread together and having authentic conversations - nothing is quite like it.

Of course, no one is expecting chocolates and red wine to perform a miracle, but as anyone who has faced with life's disappointments knows, it sure does make you feel better.

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