What do you do for lunch every day? Where do you eat it? With whom?
I’ve been on teams that eat together every day, and it’s awesome. I’ve been on teams that don’t, and lunch every day is, at best, lonely.
A lot of big tech companies have cafeterias, either free (Google) or cheap (Microsoft). At these companies, some teams actually make an effort to eat together every day. But a lot of teams don’t. If you wander around these places at lunchtime, you’ll see some large groups, a lot of pairs of people who have scheduled a “lunch meeting,” but you’ll also see a distressing number of loners eating by themselves. Maybe they’re reading a book or checking their email while they eat so they don’t look sad. Maybe they took their lunch back to their desk so they wouldn’t have to sit in the cafeteria by themselves. Maybe they genuinely don’t like people and they’re happy to eat alone. Or maybe they’re just telling you that.
At Google and Microsoft, the cafeterias can get so crowded that the loners really have to sit with other groups because there isn’t enough room to sit at a table by themselves. Occasionally, the group they sit down with makes an effort to include the loner in their conversation. More often, the loner is obligated to pretend to be utterly engrossed in playing Farmbook on their smartphone, so as to provide a pretext to avoid having to make social contact. Excuse me, I’d love to introduce myself to you, but it’s very important that I update my cabbage.
Where and with whom we eat lunch is a much bigger deal than most people care to admit. Obviously, psychologists will tell us, obviously it goes back to childhood, and especially school, particularly Junior High, where who you eat with is of monumental importance. Being in any clique, even if it’s just the nerds, is vastly preferable than eating alone. For loners and geeks, finding people to eat with in the cafeteria at school can be a huge source of stress.
The importance of eating together with your co-workers is not negotiable, to me. It’s too important to be left to chance. That’s why we eat together at long tables, not a bunch of little round tables. That’s why when new people start work at the company, they’re not allowed to sit off by themselves in a corner. When we have visitors, they eat together with everyone else.
Even though Stack Exchange and Fog Creek are completely separate companies, we take advantage of the fact that our offices are in the same building to eat together every day. I’m glad that we have a chance to do this, even though a lot of people tend to clique-up and sit with the same people day after day.
There’s a lot of stuff that’s accidental about Fog Creek and Stack Exchange, but lunch is not one of them. Ten years ago Michael and I set out with the rather ambitious goal of making a great place to work. Eating together is a critical part of what it means to be human and what it means to have a humane workplace, and that’s been a part of our values from day one.
You’re reading Joel on Software, stuffed with years and years of completely raving mad articles about software development, managing software teams, designing user interfaces, running successful software companies, and rubber duckies.
I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, which lets you organize anything, together, FogBugz, enlightened issue tracking software for bug tracking, and Kiln, which provides distributed version control and code reviews. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.