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What factors to take into account when considering ban of eating at desk? Here is my situation:

  • I am the manager of a (software development) team
  • I have the authority to impose workplace rules such as this
  • I believe eating at desks is unprofessional and reduces productivity and work quality (many reasons, not required to know to answer this question)

When would it be acceptable to ban eating food at desks (except for silent, odourless, utensil-less comestibles and liquids)?

To clarify, it would still be OK to consume:

  • any liquid (coffee, tea, soup in a mug - no spoon)
  • anything not crunchy or smelly or wrapped in a noisy wrapper
  • ban doesn't extend to "celebratory events" such as the delivery of a mile stone, birthdays or whatever when cake might be passed around etc

Edit:

  • For reference, the work area layout is "agile": long, straight open desks without partitions
  • There is quite generous dedicated lunch area with plenty of tables, a kitchenette, large fridge, etc. It is located adjacent to my team's area (this is sheer luck as although the whole company is on one floor, for some teams the distance is up to 40 meters)

Also, I would be prepared to fund some "surfing" equipment (eg iPads) for the lunch area, if being able to eat 'n' surf is the driving factor for eating at desks

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Jim G., Michael Grubey, Paul Brown, Deer Hunter, bytebuster Aug 17 '13 at 22:07

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Hi Bohemian, as it stands, this post seeks extended discussion or debate. However, it is on topic, and an interesting one at that. One suggestion I have is to edit it and focus on solving the problem instead. People are of course going to disagree that it's a problem, and The Workplace Chat is a great place to expand and discuss, whereas focusing on solutions to the problem is great for the Q&A portion of the site. Hope this helps! :) –  jmort253 Feb 12 '13 at 4:51
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Are you actually trying to solve a problem or just impose rules? Has someone complained about people eating at their desks? Or complained about a specific person? What is the nature of these complaints? If they are directed at a single person, is there any kind of history or underlying problems between the two employees? If it's general complaints, when did they start and did something lead up to them? –  Thomas Owens Feb 12 '13 at 10:34
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Why not just ask your developers what they think? –  RWY Feb 12 '13 at 10:52
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Rather than re-posting your question worded differently, please edit your original question to improve it. –  Jim Feb 12 '13 at 13:50
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I feel like people are down-voting because they don't like the idea of not being able to eat at their desk; not because this question is sub-par compared those without down-votes. –  Rob P. Feb 13 '13 at 17:13
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9 Answers 9

Like most things, you certainly can, but don't count on your development team being around very long.

3 problems with imposing a change like this - it's always harder to take invisible "perks" like this away than it is if it's always like that. Secondly, people are going to see it as draconian and they will bitch and moan about it (even if just to themselves) which will lower morale. Thirdly, are you going to have exceptions and if no exceptions, how exactly are you going to enforce it? Disciplinary action?

I honestly think you're going to have a hard job selling it as anything other than "this annoys me therefore you all must change", you CAN take that attitude but I'd recommend you don't.

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In this answer I will focus more on points that can be looked at from a managerial point of view (as that is what you are) rather than from an employees point of view.

Why do you believe eating at desks is unprofessional?

I can understand the annoyance of smelly foods but that doesn't mean you need to ban all foods.

What would you suggest in the place of eating at desks? Each person MUST go to the lunch hall every time they want a snack?

That will cause a massive loss in productivity for all the time people are away from desks. So sure you could also ban snacks breaking then too. But i know for a fact if im sat there hungry, stomach growling, im not going to be able to focus and it will cause slower, lower quality work. Is that acceptable to you?

What about those people who are really busy, really close to a deadline on an important project? I know that there are many people who will sit at their desk and eat and work right through their lunch break. Would you ban them from doing that too? Prepare for a loss of work there too.

You have to think about the bigger impact of choices, you cant expect the quality of work to be the same if people are hungry and unfocussed, but you can't expect people to leave the desk everytime they want a chocolate bar. The loss of focus is enough to hamper thought processes and slow down work.

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I believe that more work gets done overall if you leave your desk to eat, eat, then return to work, than if you eat at your desk, because you can't focus properly on work and eat at the same time, and you'll return fresher after a break from your desk. –  Bohemian Feb 12 '13 at 10:24
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@Bohemian i am inclined to disagree, but this is obviously based only on the work environments i have seen. I , and certainly all my colleagues, find this more desireable. Have you thought about y'know, asking your developers? No-one can tell you if this will work but them to be honest –  RWY Feb 12 '13 at 10:51
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@Bohemian: perhaps, YOU can't focus properly on work and eat at the same time, I don't see why this should be applied to anyone else. I would rather eat at my desk and spend my lunch break hiking. –  Steve V Feb 12 '13 at 11:36
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@SteveV - That might be true for YOU. But studies show people who multi-task consistently under-perform compared to non-multi-taskers. And while you presumably find your food appetizing others might not. Co-workers eating/smelly food is commonly listed on pet-peeve surveys. Even if you aren't impacting your own performance, you may be impacting others negatively. Why not hike while eating? Eating appears to be a trivial thing that takes none of your attention or focus. –  Rob P. Feb 13 '13 at 17:23
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@RobP. : "people cannot effectively drink and eat at the same time" wow, that's very deep ;) –  Steve V Feb 14 '13 at 10:30
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I believe eating at desks is unprofessional and reduces productivity and work quality (many reasons, not required to know to answer this question)

Unless you can make this case convincingly to your team, then you're in trouble. In essence, any action can appear as "draconian" if not backed by sound reasoning based on common values. "Because I think it's unprofessional" is not going to cut it. Why is it unprofessional? What negative impact is the behavior having on the business? What benefit or positive outcome are you expecting from the change?

So yeah, "my way or the highway" is certainly a recognized leadership-style, but I daresay not a very successful one.

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You need to Influence, not impose.

A ban is a BAD idea. Your employees are not children and you don't need to manage their eating habits. Are you willing to fire an employee or dock their pay (until they leave for a better job) for eating at their desk? Don't implement a rule you aren't really willing to enforce, no one will respect it or you.

If you believe that this is the best policy then you need to be a leader and influence them to your point of view:

  • Provide the iPads
  • Provide evidence that getting away from your desk to eat makes you more productive
  • Provide the example by showing them that you practice what you preach

If you make a good point and make it well you can change the situation without making it worse.

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Before you ban eating at the desk, you must

  • Provide an easily accessible comfortable eating area
  • Allow frequent eating breaks

These two requirements cost you money !

If you're the owner of the company, of course you can do it. You can do anything in your own place as long as it is legal.

If you are another employee(although a manager), I am afraid you must have the permission from your supervisor before you start the ban !

Edit after OP updated the question

The OP did not state how far between the work area and the eating area(next room could be 5 minutes for some). If it takes 5 minutes to go to the eating area from the work area, it cannot be called easily accessible - the round trip takes 10 minutes.

I do not believe the OP has the authority to impose such rule unless the office is a military facility. If so, the OP probably would have that power. If not, I am afraid the OP will have to get prior approval from his supervisor.

In the US, such rule is very problematic. I happen to be diabetic. I eat when I need to eat. If my management disallows me to eat at my desk, he possibly violates the American Disability Act (ADA).(I am not a lawyer, I'll stop here).

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I believe that more work gets done overall if you leave your desk to eat, eat, then return to work, than if you eat at your desk, because you can't focus properly on work and eat at the same time, and you'll return fresher after a break from your desk. –  Bohemian Feb 12 '13 at 10:23
    
@Bohemian as pointed in this answer, providing a sufficiently comfortable "alternative" to eating at the desk will cost you money, are you considering "investment" like that? –  gnat Feb 12 '13 at 10:42
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@gnat see edit to question. we have a massive lunch area already –  Bohemian Feb 12 '13 at 10:51
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@Bohemian You didn't say how accessible the lunch area is. How far is it from the work area? If it takes 5 minutes to go there from my desk, I would not use it for eating break myself. I personally do not believe it's a good idea. Different people have different working styles. When you force your style onto your subordinates, the end result would be that most would leave. I would not accept such management style if I have a subordinate who force his style onto his subordinates. –  scaaahu Feb 12 '13 at 11:16
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if it's 5 meters away, there's still be the same noise and smells in the office area, so banning food there is pointless as the noise and smell are your complaints. You'd also have to restrict the use of the eating area to certain exactly regulated times, which brings in far more problems (as pointed out by a lot of people already, like scaaahu's diabetes). –  jwenting Feb 13 '13 at 7:17
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If you're a developer (and since you originally posted this question on Programmers.SE, I suppose that you are), the major issue is not that others are eating in front of you, but rather that you have somebody doing something in the same room.

Eating is distracting for others

Any presence is distracting for developers. People shouldn't eat, walk, talk, move, make noise, answer the phone in the same room as you. In fact, you should have your own room. That's why the point 8 of Joel Test is:

8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?

There are extensively documented productivity gains provided by giving knowledge workers space, quiet, and privacy.

[...]

Now let's move them into separate offices with walls and doors. [...]

If your company is unable to provide you with quiet working conditions, live with it, or find a new job.

You may also want to negotiate with your coworkers, telling that seeing them eating disturbs you a lot. But don't expect everybody to follow every of your desires.

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SCRUM and other systems prescribe teams sharing a room, so they can communicate more easily. –  jwenting Feb 12 '13 at 6:53
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@jwenting not all projects require f2f communication, not all the projects require Scrum, not all the projects require shared room. I participated in some projects like that and believe it or not, compared to Scrum it felt like driving Ferrari on a highway vs Landrover off-road –  gnat Feb 12 '13 at 14:40
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The advantage of quiet working conditions easily outweighs being able to shout to one another. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Feb 13 '13 at 16:14
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Here is what should be a concern with food:

  1. Don't damange any equipment.
  2. If excessive preparation is required, do it at a break.
  3. Don't disturb those around you with noise or smell (not limited to food).

Here are some productivty concerns:

  1. People eat at their desk and don't take a full lunch break or keep working.
  2. You can't be productive if you're hungry all the time.
  3. You disturb others.

As a manager, it would be more professional for you to focus on work outcomes rather than the appearance of being professional. You're in the business of creating software; leave the appearances to sales and marketing. Just make sure you're not eating in your private office. Leading by example usually works best.

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I am quite sensitive to noises in the workplace and eating in cubical areas can be a major cause of distractions. Unfortunately cutting this out or placing a ban will never go over well no matter how well you craft a restriction.

I think the best approach is to address these topics in a round table discussion (team meeting) and allow others to chime in; you might be surprised that others have similar sentiments on the same topic.

In general this is as far as I would go on asking politely to be refrained from in working areas:

  1. Please don't reheat that crab-seafood surprise for the 1,000' radius to be able to smell at 10 am. It stinks and causes a distraction (if you keep things a bit funny and lighthearted it will be digested (no pun intended) better by the team.
  2. Try to avoid using utensils that make a lot of clinging noises. For example, replace that ceramic bowl and metal spoon, with a free plastic spoon provided in the break room.
  3. Try and keep the Super Bowl Doritos bag noises and crunches to a minimum if possible as co-workers struggling with a problem don't want to be serenaded with a 45 minute crunch session.

Point is some of your concerns are not completely unfounded; they are just really, really hard to enforce without lowering moral. If you get lucky (from your stand point), some building employee guides already state "no eating at the desk" and in that case you could hide behind that. However be ready to police the rule and don't expect to be too popular busting people for violating it.

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It's absolutely not a problem if you're in charge otherwise you'll have to work with the policies you choose to accept.

It's basically the classic argument of individual vs. the group.

You get to choose where you work (to a degree) and as such you can start you're own company if you're unhappy with what the market is giving you. Otherwise you suck it up and deal with what the policies are thrown at you.

Of course you free to suggest any change within any company - but how much this accepted/rejected probably always goes to the bottom line as to how much value your suggestions add/substract.

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but he would have to work with the policies he accepts even if he is in charge. i cant imagine he would ban eating at desk then do it himself –  RWY Feb 13 '13 at 15:53
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