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I'm a project manager working for a startup.

Since I've been here, we've never had a set time for lunch, and just taken our breaks at whatever time we wished, for one hour.

Our boss (the CEO) decided today, in a meeting privately with me, to make the lunch fixed, from 12:30 to 1:30. He plans to let everyone know at the next team meeting.

I'm concerned that this will affect morale, and have expressed this to the boss. In the employment contract, there is nothing that says we should have time between x and y hours.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 30 '16 at 1:55
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    country would be interesting. For germany i.e. I can say I even first heard of this when getting in contact with IT jobs. Any other domain I had contact with there it was pretty usual to have fixed lunch times. – Zaibis Jun 30 '16 at 12:06
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    If the CEO is going to provide lunch. Then setting it as a fixed time may make sense. – Martin York Jun 30 '16 at 15:46
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    Fixed lunch times are fairly standard. And yes, your boss does have a say on when your team (or anyone he supervises, directly or indirectly) takes it's lunch. Your boss can impose anything they like that adheres to your countries labor laws. – SnakeDoc Jun 30 '16 at 19:35
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    Of course the CEO can decide that everyone should have their lunch break at the same time, just as he can decide that everyone should work fixed hours - all within the bounds set by law. Whether or not this change in policy (or, more precisely, this establishment of policy) is a good idea is an open question. What is the CEO trying to do by establishing a fixed lunch-hour policy? Is there a problem such as people taking excessively long lunch "hours"? This isn't happening in a vacuum - what's the CEO's motivation? – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Jul 1 '16 at 11:29

10 Answers 10

108

What problem is this trying to solve?

Reception of this policy will entirely depend on whether the team perceives a problem with current state -- or not.

A boss ramrodding this for no reason? It will cause a negative morale hit.

Normally this sort of thing is up to a boss's discretion (and/or company policy), assuming no violations of local labor laws.

What should you do about it? First identify why your boss wants to do this. It's very likely that a variety of alternative suggestions might work, depending on the root issue here.

  • Better team notification of non-standard lunch/breaks. If people take a lunchbreak at 1:30, do they tell the team?
  • "Core" lunch hours. Maybe lunch breaks are 1 hour between 11am and 1pm.
  • Better visibility to the boss through calendars. If your boss frequently experiences problems in getting ahold of people around lunch, they might push something like this. A way to avoid this is to reliably update some sort of status (either calendar, instant messenger, whatever)
  • Is the team getting their work done to the bosses satisfaction? Sometimes things like this come from discontentment with progress and a perceived idea that "more discipline" will fix the problem. Sometimes this is true.
  • Too long of lunch breaks. Perhaps caused by some of the above, but if people are abusing a generous policy sometimes the response is to shut down the policy... the way to address this root issue is a combination of the above and discussion with the offenders, not a blanket policy.

My guess is there are a few incidents that "triggered" your boss to make this policy that could be fairly easily resolved without a policy like this.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jun 30 '16 at 14:53
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    (+1) Another (relatively common) approach solving roughly the same root issues as points 2 and 3 is mandatory presence times (something like 9-12 and 14-17) where everybody can be reached, meetings can be scheduled, etc. (basically turning around point 2 and only constraining lunch or working times implicitly, with quite some flexibility left). – Relaxed Jul 1 '16 at 14:17
  • He mentioned today he wants lunch breaks at this time since the sales team work with customers who are abroad and an hour ahead, so wants them to have lunch at the same time as them. I don't know why the rule has been imposed onto the dev team. – bobo2000 Jul 4 '16 at 11:27
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Unless specifically stated otherwise in the individual employment contracts, this is fair game for change.

I don't think the effect on morale should be oversimplified. Being able to consistently find people throughout the day helps morale. Also with the same lunch hour employees are more likely to eat together which can improve morale in a bigger way than it seems it should.

From the boss's side it's way harder figure out a pattern of people taking longer than allowed lunch breaks if lunch is whenever. I could see suspicion about abuse of this policy being a driver for change.

Edit: Based on comments it seems like the real question is how to convince the boss that this is a bad idea.

In your shoes to accomplish this goal, I would get the boss to acknowledge that flexibility in lunch start time is a perk and then ask him why directly it is being taken away. If he has a somewhat reasonable answer (I feel this policy is being abused, clients are complaining about not being able to get ahold of people, etc) I would trouble shoot that specific issue. If the answer is arbitrary, I'd ask him how he would feel about working someplace where perks are arbitrarily removed. As a control freak he would likely not enjoy it at all. I'd close with it's his company and his prerogative but I feel that removing perks will hurt the company in the long run.

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    While being able to find people consistently can help morale, being able to eat/take your break when you want is generally a better morale boost - allowing you to fit your own schedule and run errands etc. An old colleague of mine used to eat, without fail, at 11, and then work through the afternoon. I, on the other hand, couldn't stomach food much before 1 – Jon Story Jun 30 '16 at 15:20
  • I can see the moral boost you point out. But nobody is going to like being dictated to in this way (even if there lunch is usually 12:30 -> 1:30). So it will be more in the delivery than the actual time lunch is. – Martin York Jun 30 '16 at 15:42
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    Time management is the key. Being able to eat ou much earlier or later than the crowd saves you a lot of time and patience. – Rui F Ribeiro Jul 2 '16 at 7:16
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    @RuiFRibeiro I agree - the few times that I go out to eat, I prefer to get there at 11:30 am, just to beat the lunch crowd. – BryanH Jul 2 '16 at 20:53
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Legally

Here in the US, sans unions, it is absolutely the prerogative of management to set lunch break hours, within the legal bounds of the law.

Morale

There are a few things that motivate creative people† and will encourage them to leave (their employer) if they are taken away. One of the big ones is personal autonomy (see Dan Pink's talk on this).

You didn't say why Lunch hours are being set by the company. If there was no logical reason—simply management arbitrarily applying their power—this will lower morale as people need reasons (or need to create reasons) for things that affect them.

In most effective companies (especially dealing with creatives), management sees its role as eliminating barriers, not creating them.

Personal Anecdote

Years ago, I worked a salary position for a shop that decided—out of the blue—to set start times, lunch times and end times, and required everyone to sign in and out at the front desk.

Prior to that, I set my own hours, but generally arriving and leaving at consistent times. Sometimes I'd stay late to work on something if I was on a roll. I'd rarely take a lunch (I ate at my desk) so I could get out an hour early.

With the implementation of the new policy, I arrived exactly on time, took my lunch exactly on time (always out of the building - sometimes I'd walk to the local park and sit on the bench watching nature), and leave exactly on time.

At one point my supervisor whined that I no longer stayed late to work on stuff and that I was never around to answer questions during my lunch break.

Edit: To follow-up with the comments, eventually I was let go without warning, I suspect for unrelated reasons: the owners were very mistrustful of staff and did not understand technology. The official reason was they didn't need my services any longer (I learned from friends who were still they that they tried to outsource my function and failed spectacularly). Within 6 months, all the other IT workers were gone. About 18 months after I was fired, they had sold the company.

† As opposed to jobs that are mostly unskilled and/or are rote labor.

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    Even if there is a good reason, this will lower morale. – HopelessN00b Jun 29 '16 at 17:06
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    @HopelessN00b If there is a reason people will accept, it might not affect morale. For example, if management were to say that "we need support coverage from 1-2 because we're getting slammed, so no lunches during that time," that might work. – BryanH Jun 29 '16 at 17:09
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    As someone in that situation, I can tell you it still lowers morale. Not as much as doing it for totally arbitrary or moronic reasons, but no matter why you do it, reducing personal autonomy lowers morale. – HopelessN00b Jun 29 '16 at 17:13
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    Just curious about the anecdote, how did it pan out in the end? I feel this might be helpful to the discussion. Did your supervisor reverse course? Accept your response? Did you leave the company? – MoondogsMaDawg Jun 29 '16 at 18:14
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    How much more productive where you due to taking a lunch break outside? – Ian Jun 30 '16 at 8:49
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Yes, it's legal.

Yes, it's stupid.

Start time, end time, and break times can indeed be decided by the employer, otherwise retail businesses wouldn't work. However, flexibility with the work times is a perk that doesn't cost the employer money - so if the nature of the business allows it, it's usually granted.

7

How many people in your office are responsible for child care, or elder care, or have medical conditions? An inflexible lunch hour means that people who use this time for personal business such as talking to teachers or social workers or physical therapy will have to use paid-time off for this, until they use up all that paid time off.

Do you also have a set start time? People who commute at off-peak hours will either be eating after they've been at work for hours, or shortly after they come in.

Suppose someone is a parent who comes in early and leaves at 4:15 to save on child-care. They would probably want to eat around 11.

I cannot think of a useful reason for this plan. Either people are meeting their deadlines or not. Ringing a lunch bell as if you are in a factory isn't going to help.

3

Something to consider: lunch never truly begins and ends at lunch hours.

In the run-up to lunch, peoples' blood sugar is low, making them less active and creative. This affects everyone, from construction workers to programmers to - scarily enough - court justices.

From The Economist: I think it's time we broke for lunch…:

The team found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on.

As for lunch itself, if everybody is eating at roughly different time periods, it squeezes the time where collaboration can actually happen to the first and last few hours of the day. This is especially important in work cultures where talking about work at lunch is a no-no. For example, at my current job, the only rule for our department's monthly lunch outings is no talking about work. Whereas when I worked at Apple, discussion of any work topics at lunch was strictly forbidden - especially among members of other teams.

Now that lunch is over, everyone settles into their own little food coma and slows down as their bodies pump up the insulin to take care of all of the glucose suddenly rushing through their system. This results in the post-lunch slump. VICE described this scenario well, if a bit characteristically crudely:

That said, you know you can turn a lunch hour into a three-hour break, right? Here's the thing, nobody does any work in that precious, golden hour after they've had their lunch. Everybody goes out, eats a meal deal, then has a bit of an hour-long food coma, and a little look at popular websites such as VICE dot com. You do this. And you think you're the only one, but you're not—your boss is doing it, your colleagues are doing it, and %#&@ing Sandra is doing it.

So here's how you turn your lunch hour into a three-hour break: You take it at 12 PM. You have a sandwich, trawl some shops, then settle back at your desk at 1 PM, when everyone else goes on lunch. With them out the way, you can doss off to your heart's content for an hour, and then when they come back and do their hour-long doss, you can also doss because you're not being policed. By 3PM the working day is basically over anyway, so you can just coast your way to 6PM. "Why is Britain dying, Joel?" people ask me. "Why is the economy dying?" I do not know.

So, in short, while it is annoying that your boss wants to strictly define the lunch hour timespan, it is a perfectly reasonable option given the drag that it can have on performance. If the blowback to morale is worse than the opportunity cost of productivity, it may be worth bringing up. Otherwise, it might be fair to say that your boss has a point.

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There is the legal side, and the morale loop.

On the legal side, that kind of simple changes is probably legal in most parts of the world. There might be exceptions, but don't expect the move to be illegal.

On the morale loop, there are several things to notice.

  • The initial effect will be fatally negative.
  • There might be a lot of long term positive effects, as accurately stated by Myles.
  • There might be also long term negative effects

The negative effects will be highly dependent on the profile of the workers involved. Very high profile people (or who see themselves as such), used to a lot of autonomy, may enter a long-term resistance. More social people might actually feel it's a good thing, and be happy to have more time structure to develop their relationships around.

So my answer, for the morale effect, is more on the side of : "know your team". Depending on the profile, the effects can be strongly positive, or strongly negative. If your team has a similar profile to TheMathemagician (who commented your OP asking whether your firm was a prison), then it's definitively a bad idea.

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    I'm not sure whether you actually mean "moral" or whether you mean "morale" in most context above. – Amy Blankenship Jun 29 '16 at 15:09
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    @AmyBlankenship be bold! Fix typos, it makes the whole site better. – Richard Rast Jun 29 '16 at 15:43
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    Thanks for the correction(it's the same word in my native language). – gazzz0x2z Jun 29 '16 at 15:49
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    OK, then @Richard Rast. A "wether" is a goat who has been castrated :). – Amy Blankenship Jun 29 '16 at 15:50
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    Most spellcheckers claim that "wether" isn't a word. They're just wrong :) – Amy Blankenship Jun 29 '16 at 22:08
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It's legal unless contracted otherwise, and despite most of the answers, it's actually better for the company, not so great for the employees I guess. But they'll get over it.

The boss has the prerogative to make this change. It's the managers job to limit damage to morale somehow. Any little change will potentially impact on morale, they're useful to gauge morale and to highlight people who are potential discipline problems.

Employees over value themselves and have a sense of entitlement in some places. Good idea to pop their bubble once in a while. I've seen it done more than once, usually because people are abusing their lunch hour. Sometimes it's a temporary measure because you want to send a message to a whole team, and then you can give a big boost to morale by giving them the privilege back sometime in the future.

Flexible hours are a perk, not a given unless it's in the contract.

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From the planning point of view, it is a lot easier to arrange meetings if there are core hours. The boss knows that if he calls a meeting during core hours, unless people are on holiday, everyone else should be there.

There is no need to go round asking who is present, who is absent and their arrival and departure times. It is also easier once the company gets off the ground: the workers can call meetings within core hours and know that everyone should be at work within those hours.

  • Totally agree, give them autonomy to set their own hours, and they just abuse it anyway. – Kilisi Jun 29 '16 at 20:57
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    Here we have "soft" core hours. This means if a meeting is called during those hours, you had better attend. But if there is no meeting, do as you wish. Provided you work the required total number of hours, obviously. Works pretty well. – Stig Hemmer Jun 30 '16 at 8:37
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The question What problem is this trying to solve? that enderland already have raised is such an important question (in any context!) that I want to elaborate a little on that.

Here is a great tool to uncover and get to the core of issues. Take a piece of paper and divide into three columns with titles

What is the problem(s)   |   What is the cause(s)   |   What is the solution(s)
                         |                          | 
                         |                          | 
                         |                          | 
                         |                          | 
                         |                          | 
                         |                          | 
                         |                          | 

Discussing the problem and cause sections are far more important than the solution section, which only should be addressed after problem(s) and cause(s) are settled.

So if you pre-fill "fixed lunch hours" in the solutions column, ask your boss to elaborate on the two other columns as to what triggers that solution. The essential part here is to shift the focus from the solution to discussing the (perceived?) problem. Once that is fully clarified, only then is it time to start exploring solutions.

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