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In Defense of Eating Alone

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Earlier this month, the esteemed Cornell University released a study that is bound to have significant consequences for workplace culture. Researchers in their behavioral science lab followed around 50 platoons of firefighters, asked them how they felt about members of their group, cross-referenced those results with a questionnaire about eating with their colleagues, and viola: "Eating with co-workers enhances team performance."

I have a lot of problems with this finding.

The first is an issue about the sample size. Fifty platoons of firefighters is a statistically significant number. But maybe only when you're talking about firefighters. If you're talking about other vocations, well, perhaps the results aren't so translatable. Not to say there's no correlation, but until the study expands to other fields than firefighting, there are few reasons to automatically extrapolate the results to non-firefighting fields.

But let's say this study is followed up by a study of police officer partners. Then design teams in advertising firms. And then the city councils of small towns. Let's assume the findings all tell the same story, that eating together promotes productivity in a way that few other team-building exercises do. Even then, I still have an issue with it.

The second reason for my problem with this study is in the realm of prognostication. Here's a study that begs to be used by execs looking to get that extra little bit of productivity from their employees. How will this manifest? Oh, probably by management sending out memos that "strongly encourage" teams to eat lunch together. Or ones that "highly promote" the idea that various teams eat dinner together. (They'll use persuasive, yet not legally binding, language on purpose.)

This is worrisome.

When you're working a full-time, 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week job, the built-in lunch break is a vital part of the day. This is when you get respite from the guy who can't stop nagging you about that meaningless parts of the job you loath. This is when you catch up on your non-work correspondence. This is when you can check in with your significant other. Or, this is when you can simply sit and be silent for some meditative time.

Which is all to say: You should gladly accept management's proposal to eat with your colleagues, as long as said management is also paying you to do so. And picking up the meal tab. But even if they are -- or if they're pulling the move that has become routine in the tech industry of providing meals in the cafeteria to keep workers on campus all day long -- it's important to get a break from work.

See, eating alone is really, really, really great for you, and not just because doing so keeps you from adopting other people's bad eating habits. The human body and mind isn't meant to be productive for the lengthy periods of time that the eight-hour work day promotes. Students in class can only really focus for stretches of 15 minutes at a time, so why do we expect adults to be all that different?

The quiet lunch alone is an important time for us all to refresh the batteries, to sit with a good book and let the brain synapses merge. This isn't just the rantings of an angry loner. There are a wide range of psychological benefits that come from solitude.

Various studies have shown that humans are not all that great at multitasking. Focusing on a single task, or simply spending time with your own mind, is important for creativity. In fact, it's been shown that forcing too many team activities at work actually have a negative effect on performance. As this 2012 New York Times analysis of the benefits of solitude in the workplace points out:

Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They're also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

So, if you're truly interested in boosting group performance, how about this: Allow workers to disperse away from everyone else, gather up information and ideas from the outside world, and then have a post-lunch session where everyone can talk about what they learned with their precious, glorious time alone.

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