Introducing Food Forward: Challenging the virtue of 'free food' as an employee benefit

WHEN industry leaders like Google and Facebook offer free food as a benefit to full-time employees, many employers try to follow suit. Not every company can pour millions of dollars into building and sustaining fully-stocked cafeterias and hiring gourmet chefs, but you can bet they do evaluate their budgets and strain to find a way to offer free meals or snacks on a regular basis. Their goal is reasonable: They want to attract and retain the best talent by offering free food to fuel more innovations through random conversations during meals.

I sat down with my team members at TaskUs one evening -- appropriately over food and drinks -- to rethink the notion that free meals and snacks are always beneficial to employee welfare. We recognized three problems with free food. When everyone in a company is offered free food, it tends to lead to a tragedy of the commons, with team members taking the benefit for granted and not caring for the cafeteria, the kitchen staff, and the available foodstuff. In some cases, there may even be a freeloader effect -- team members may waste or hoard food, since there is no incentive to do otherwise. And in a system with free food, team members are not nudged to choose the healthy option: the Hawaiian pizza, after all, is the same "price" (i.e. free) as the caesar salad.

Our VP of Culture, Isabel Bernal, came up with a radical spin on the free food concept and pioneered a unique way to encourage employees to eat healthy (care for self), help the less fortunate (care for others), and live the company's core values (care for company) entitled Food Forward.

Through the TaskUs Food Forward Program, employees have access to highly subsidized healthy meals from the company's "Integrity Store" for a minimum donation of P5. The food is not free, but is priced in a way that highly incentivizes employees to choose the healthy food option over the unhealthy alternative. Because the food is not free, employees do not take the food for granted and therefore do not waste it. The price is pegged at a minimum of P5 per meal, but employees can pay as much as they like. All payments are made on the basis of integrity -- no one mans the store or tracks payment, but all employees are expected to do the right thing even when no one is looking. This believes in the inherent goodness of people and creates a virtuous cycle of positive reinforcement throughout the company.

All payments received are then donated to the company's supported charities. The program has received overwhelming support, with payments exceeding the expected collection. From the initial proceeds of the project, we were able to provide funds for the repair of the restrooms, construction of beds, doors, ceiling and windows, and purchase of electric fans for ventilation for Bukid Kabataan Center, an orphanage based in Imus, Cavite. Like the 1-for-1 model popularized by TOMs shoes, where for every pair of shoes purchased, the social enterprise donated a set to a person in need, the Food Forward program has made giving more relational: You help yourself as you help others.

Of course, no system is perfect. We noticed that contributions are not uniformly high across all sites, for example: They tend to be higher in our provincial offices than our locations in central business districts. This issue is part of a larger challenge with Food Forward: Because the program is so new and unique, our communications that explain how it works, its purpose, and its results need to be clear, engaging, and consistent.

While communications for Food Forward will no doubt remain an ongoing challenge, business leaders in Southeast Asia should take note of the results we've had with Food Forward so far. Taking a look at the promising success we've experienced may give them the inspiration to challenge not just the virtue of free food, but any commonly accepted benefit or perk for employee well-being.

While it's still too early to tell how attractive the Food Forward program makes us to prospective employees, the effect on current team members is very clear. In the early run of Food Forward, we've seen a dramatic improvement in every metric that matters, including everything from employee productivity to employee satisfaction. Even the biggest skeptic would be wary of calling these spikes circumstantial, since each coincided exactly with the implementation of Food Forward. If you're a business leader in Southeast Asia, you should take these early results as the go-ahead to challenge accepted norms on employee welfare and happiness with the same relentlessness as you try to disrupt your industry. (John T. Gonzales)