This article previously appeared on the ISS company website. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.
In response to what has arguably been one of the most transformative years in modern history due to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are evaluating their real estate and downsizing space to reflect varying levels of workplace occupancy. As companies begin to reopen and bring people back to work, the question remains how our post-pandemic ways of working will transform the future of food at work. Many believed there would be a full return by the second quarter of 2021, yet every day more companies are pushing the goal line and signaling that a “flex” work week will become a permanent reality. How will food services adapt?
The presence of food in the workplace fosters company culture, builds human connection, and provides engaging experiences – most of which the workforce has been deprived of for over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused workplaces worldwide to be shut down.
As employees return to the workplace in greater numbers, there is immense opportunity to redesign food programming that heightens employees’ connection to corporate culture through:
• Agile food offerings and convenient amenities
• Better use of data to optimize spaces that have been underutilized
• Leveraging partnerships with service partners and community vendors
To unlock this opportunity, the traditional model of dedicating large amounts of real estate to the corporate “buffeteria” is no longer feasible. Companies will need a refreshed food offering that provides exceptional service, sustenance, and sociability, while activating multi-use spaces. The challenge is to build a tailored environment that is the foundation for a robust workplace community – a Town Square model of food delivery.
Unlike traditional food delivery options, the Town Square model offers:
1. An enticing food destination that is familiar, yet intriguing
2. Access to other workplace or community services for convenience such as mail, printing, and local specialty merchants
3. The ability to scale up and down based on occupancy for an optimal experience
4. Maximized food space as multi-use space
How do we bring the Town Square concept to life? The approach can be organized according to three strategic areas:
• Experience: The Town Square concept will need to be built for variety, choice, and efficiency to provide the experience people will be craving as they return to work.
• Data: To create the optimal food service program, clients and service providers will need to leverage occupancy and preference data to manage the experience, cost, and value.
• Partnership: The client/service provider relationship will inevitably become more integrated and transparent to unlock opportunities to transform a space traditionally used only a few hours of the day to become a focal point in the workplace.
What can we learn from the hotel industry?
Successful hotel franchises have come to understand how to provide the optimal guest experience at different levels of occupancy, thereby driving both client value and company profitability. While hotels have the additional lever of average daily rate changes to improve overall margins by increasing room rates with higher levels of occupancy, they still need to make decisions about opening the onsite amenities offered at any given time: too many outlets open results in higher cost and less efficiency; too few outlets open negatively impacts customer experience and ultimately brand loyalty.
Studies show that hotel guest satisfaction is correlated to price, occupancy, and guest expectations compared to perceived quality of service. The result of these variables shows that satisfaction is at its highest when there is a balance between occupancy and amenities. Based on this research, one could argue that the optimal guest experience is when the lines are manageable, there are lounge chairs open at the pool, and all food and drink outlets are available. To meet expectations at any occupancy level, design solutions over the last decade have increasingly focused on transforming scarcely used lobby space into dynamic, multi-purpose amenity space for gathering, meeting, eating, and drinking.
So how does this relate to the future of corporate food? Let’s look at our three strategic areas…
Food services are, and will continue to be, a main element in fostering corporate culture. For employers to entice employees back to the workplace, there needs to be a clear reason and purpose, as well as an element of intrigue and fun. In addition, with the work environment becoming more flexible and hybrid, there is a need to creatively activate the current space, rather than build new space. Within the Town Square model, the idea is to create a multi-purpose area that can expand and contract with occupancy levels and client needs.
Service partners should also consider the community and design a space where local business becomes part of the programming, whether that is bike repair, a cobbler, or a local gelateria. The Town Square model can also incorporate expanded soft services like concierge, mailroom, or office supplies. These areas of the Town Square can be activated or closed based on occupancy to create the optimal experience for the employee.
To effectively execute this concept, companies must evaluate the local competition. The probability of success may be diminished in areas where there are prolific local food options. However, as the Town Square model incorporates other services in addition to food, it will increase motivation for employees to frequent the Town Square destination. For example, an employee can pick up mail, grab needed office supplies, and pick up a sandwich for lunch. Or if more time allows, they can go to the fitness center, swing by the smoothie bar, get their preordered lunch for later at a grab-and-go food station, and even pick up their dry cleaning.
The greatest challenge to the Town Square model is in populating the available space with food concepts that are easily turned on and off, meeting requirements for flexible staffing, and balancing experience and profitability. However, with this challenge comes the opportunity to create a more personalized food destination experience at lower levels of occupancy. To do this effectively, a company and their food partner would need to leverage real-time, accurate occupancy and customer satisfaction data. This helps the company and the service provider manage risk, reduce cost, and ensure consistency.
Companies and their food service providers will need to incorporate predictive modeling based on office occupancy to effectively manage food supply and pricing, as well as areas of the Town Square that are activated or closed. Many companies are already tracking office occupancy data through workplace experience apps, building sensors, or simply through office access key cards. The strategic element would be to leverage this data in order to first design compartmentalized flexible food offerings and, more importantly, be able to flex within those destinations to provide the optimal experience at any given occupancy level.
Temporarily closed spaces should be managed creatively so that guest perception is minimally impacted at the employee/consumer level. Moreover, when considering risk mitigation and social hesitancy when entering various levels of re-occupancy, mobile food outlets should also be a part of this solution to generate maximum flexibility.
A successful Town Square model will require a heightened level of understanding of a company’s core business. It will also require more transparency and trust in client-service provider partnerships, employing evolving insights in the design of new buildings and the transformation of existing spaces.
Ideally, the food service partner would need monthly forecasts with daily and weekly updates. A plan for overage forecasts would be necessary to accommodate unexpected guests. Communication would be crucial, requiring visibility into large or important projects that would need certain teams to be on site, such as product development and launches, sales summits, and conferences.
Ultimately, understanding the company’s core business cadence, real estate needs, and the role of the office environment is key to unlocking this opportunity and differentiation. If done right, the Town Square model will create more value for organizations in the form of space utilization and employee amenities, drive diversity in offerings and supply chain, and support the communities where we live and work.
Helene Kennan is the Global Head of Food Programs for ISS A/S. She previously served as Chief Innovations Officer and then CEO of FM Top 50 firm ISS Guckenheimer. Before joining Guckenheimer, she was Regional Director in Silicon Valley and then Global Vice President for Compass Group.