HR Headaches: My Boss Holds Meetings During Lunch

Making employees take meetings during their lunch break can be more counter-productive than effective.

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For some managers, the genius behind the lunch meeting is the ability to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. Some managers (try to) eat and also do work — believing they’re boosting productivity. As a bonus, most (but not all) staff members take their lunch break at the same time, so managers are able to herd them all together in a single location. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, not so much.

The problem with lunch meetings is they also kill 2 birds with 1 stone. Employees aren’t able to take their lunch “break,” which allows them to rest from their work, restock their stomachs, and reset their brains. As far as the “work” is concerned, you’re never really getting 100% of their attention. Either they’re neglecting that PB&J to focus on work, or enjoying its creamy goodness and ignoring the task at hand.

When bosses set meetings — either informational or working — during lunch, the message is clear. The break we promised on a daily basis was more of a guideline than a rule; one we can take away at our discretion. Organizations that value their employees should try not to break their own rules — it sets a bad example.

Why lunch meetings don’t work

Whether it’s a one-on-one with the boss, or a team experience, lunch meetings can be more counter-productive than effective. No manager has ever seen their staff members jump for joy when a lunch meeting is called. At best, you get resigned agreement to join; at worst, active disgruntlement. There are a lot of good reasons why.

They’re messy

People are trying to eat while they meet and, depending what’s on the menu, that can be problematic. Unless the meeting is lecture-style, employees may be called upon to speak or have something important to say with a mouthful. That can either discourage them from participating or put them in an embarrassing position. Additionally, someone has to clean up after everyone, which no one wants to do.

They’re limiting

Unless you’re ready to order in from a long list of venues, lunch meetings typically offer limited options. That can make it challenging for workers to make healthy choices in their meals, or pressure those with dietary restrictions to let their stomach rumble while they do without. If employees are required to pay, no matter where you order from, someone will end up being unhappy. If the meal is on the company dime and is last minute, those who brought their lunch that day lost out on a freebie.

People need a break

For some employees, a walk outside and a breath of fresh air is part of their lunchtime routine. For others, reading a book, running errands, or checking in with the babysitter is a priority during their “me time.” When taken away, resentment and dissatisfaction can be the result. If you don’t want employees to handle personal business on work time, you probably shouldn’t require work during their personal time.

Research suggests that even brief breaks allow the brain an opportunity to rest and refocus: the result is better productivity. Overworked employees are more stressed and more prone to errors, omissions, and, ultimately, job burnout. Managers who think they’re gaining a few hours of extra productivity during the lunch hour may be contributing to lost productivity in the afternoon, as well as lost employees in the long term.

Misguided mixed messages

Why allot a lunch break if employees aren’t allowed to use it? If the work day includes a lunch break, employees should be encouraged or required to take time away from their desk. Or they should at least be able to complete their tasks alone if they want to eat at their desk in privacy.

A Tork survey found 75% of employees who take a lunch daily feel valued as an employee. Another 90% believe that taking lunch breaks helps them “feel refreshed and ready to get back to work.” Their data suggests staffers who take the daily break score higher on engagement metrics, including job satisfaction, with a higher likelihood to stay with their company and to recommend their workplace to others.

75% of employees who take a lunch daily feel valued as an employee. Another 90% believe that taking lunch breaks helps them “feel refreshed and ready to get back to work.”

Employees are afraid to say no

For some, taking lunch at all puts pressure on employees. Almost 20% of those polled by Tork worry their boss will consider them less than hardworking if they routinely take a lunch break (even though they’re scheduled to do so daily). And they’re not wrong in their assessment. The same poll found 22% of bosses consider employees who take a regular lunch break are less hardworking. If 1/5 of your workforce is worried taking the lunch break you allotted them is a problem, it’s likely not an engaged team.

It’s not really lunch

Managers often try to bribe employees required to attend lunch meetings with free food. Staffers quickly find out there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You may get a sandwich, but in return you’re required to work. Depending on how much you earn, you might be getting the short end of the breadstick. If you want to treat your employees and show your appreciation, provide the free lunch with no strings attached.

Distributed teams don’t fare any better

Remote work may be adding to the problem. For those who work from home, working while eating may have become the norm, rather than the exception. New data shows remote workers have added almost 50 minutes to their average workday.

Remote workers should be reminded, encouraged, or required to take their lunch break away from their computer, their emails, and their work.

These staff members are missing out on the chance to refresh, often unknown to their employers. Remote workers should be reminded, encouraged, or required to take their lunch break away from their computer, their emails, and their work.

Exceptions to the rule

Obviously there are situations where a working lunch is necessary. An emergency happens and all hands are required on deck to brainstorm and resolve. Some companies offer lunch-and-learn sessions. These are voluntary lunchtime lectures that provide information to employees on work-related or special topics. For these, employees should be free to join or decline, depending on their level of interest.

Reverse the trend 

For individuals, if the boss really can’t read the room when suggesting or holding a lunch meeting, try sending a message or talking privately. Let them know you rely on your lunch break to eat in peace or connect with your coworkers, as well as recharge your work battery.

If it’s not possible to speak candidly with the boss without fear of reprisals, send a message to HR, even anonymously, if need be. Ask the HR team to clarify that lunch breaks are provided for a reason. Request that they send a message to all managers that lunch breaks are provided to staff members. Lunch meetings or working lunches diminish engagement and productivity. They should be rare, and used for emergency situations only.

For HR professionals, working lunches may be an ugly secret in your organization that’s contributing to low engagement and attrition. Employees may be fearful to complain about being required to attend lunch meetings or even working through lunch at their desk. Anonymous surveys could be a proactive step in finding out if these are happening in your company and how much, if any, they impact employee morale.

If your surveys come back with even a few complaints about working through breaks or required meetings during lunch, create a policy that bans the practices except for the rarest of emergency situations. “Working lunch” is an oxymoron: you’re either working or having a lunch break, employees shouldn’t have to do both.

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