Friday, June 12, 2009

Food, Glorious Food

There was an article in The Boston Globe yesterday on local companies that are trying to help boost post-layoff morale by feeding the troops.

Having had a long career in high tech, I've long known that the tech army marches on its stomach. Food has been an integral part of the culture of pretty much every place I've worked.

My first job out of business school was with Dynamics Associates, a funky little Cambridge tech consulting company that held a weekly "Friday Party," featuring beer, wine, junk food, and - in the early days - a bit of weed. But most of the focus was on the junk food, which we would take turns shopping for at the market across the street. As long as you had the main food groups covered - salt, sugar, fat, and grease - no one cared what you bought. And one of the bennies of being a weekend warrior was that there was usually a decent ration of food to keep you going on Saturday and Sunday.

Sometimes the food was symbolic - lots o' eatin' o' the green around St. Patrick's Day. And one Valentine's Day, a day on which we'd had a small layoff, my friend Michele and I (the day's shoppers) bought a big, pink heart-shaped cake and gouged a jagged wound right through the middle.

At Wang Labs, my next stop, food was less of a big deal. No one was going to spring for Friday munchies for a couple of thousand people. But my group had brown-bag lunch together every Friday, at which we played trivia. Each week, someone brought in a quiz on whatever topic they fancied, and the quizzes were so weird and varied that anyone could win. I remember doing one on what's on different state license plates, and another (on my birthday) that was multiple choice questions about things that had happened to me in grammar school.  (Quick: who sneezed all over himself and everyone sitting near him while we were kneeling on our chairs reciting the rosary?)

Wang's one nice tradition was a Christmas Eve party that was held for each individual group. Kids and spouses were invited, and Wang sprang for the grub. The parties ended by noon, and we all got to go home early. Then came the new regime, which decided to put the kibosh on the family-invited/half-day off bennie, and substitute a new fun tradition: on Christmas Eve the senior execs would serve us a full-fixings turkey dinner in the cafeteria.

Well, the lines were so long that my group decided to go down late. On our way in, we were met by the real execs hastily leaving the caf, ripping off their Santa caps and looking like they'd just spent a couple  of hours on the rack, rather than serving their beloved employees.  My team got served by lesser VP's whom no one recognized. I'm sure the food was equally mediocre whether served by the new President, Rick Miller, or by Joe Blow, the VP of Internal Process. Still!

The high point of the new way to celebrate the holidays was the memo that went out warning that anyone who left work early on Christmas Eve would have to take vacation time or else.

And joy to your scroogish little world, too, Mr. Miller.

Next stop: Softbridge.

Since it had the same founder as Dynamics, it was no surprise that we also observed Friday Party. Since we weren't as close to junk food shopping as we were at Dynamics (which was just outside of Harvard Square), we mostly sent out for pizza, calzones, and chicken fingers.

In the latter years of Softbridge, we played down Friday Party a bit, and played up Friday lunch, where we held a weekly meeting and took turns bringing in dessert. (We only had a few dozen people there, so it wasn't all that onerous.) Woe betide anyone who forgot it was their turn to do dessert. Come noon, they would have to head out and pick up something on the quick.

Although I always baked something - usually brownies or apple cobbler - it really didn't matter if you brought in something homemade or a Crisco-and-confectioner's-sugar-slathered sheet cake. We could really mau down those desserts.

At Genuity, free food for techies was taken to an absurd level.

When I first joined the company, food was served at pretty much every meeting. And I do mean food. Some morning meetings featured full breakfast buffets. Food left over from a meeting was left out for anyone to grab, and the informal rule among the admins was over-order. Thus, in addition to normal amounts of leftovers, there were always a few extra sandwiches, salads, chips, cookies, and sodas.

Afternoon meetings meant cookies, candy, ice cream, and soda.

I went to one meeting - with about five or six attendees - where there were enough petit-fours to cater a small wedding.

In addition to two platters of petit-fours, there were a dozen candy bars, a dozen bottled waters, and a dozen sodas.

I gained five pounds my first six months at Genuity.

Then we got a new, kick-butt president who declared fatwa on the free lunch. (There really was no such thing....)

After that, we had to content ourselves with an occasional group pizza, or the annual "treat" in which the execs came around with a Good Humor cart for us. Ding-a-ling!

There was one post-fatwa blowout, however: on the day of our IPO, there was a lavish catered event in the company courtyard to "celebrate."

Alas, by the time the big event began, the market had closed for the day, and every one who had any skin in the friends and family game - which would include me, unfortunately  - knew that the offering had gone out below the pre-IPO price.

If we'd been able to sell that day, we all could have salvaged something, but we were locked into a six-month hold. At which point, the value of a share was nearing zero.

The IPO food was the least they could do, but it didn't exactly make up for the $11/share that so many of us lost.

The final stop on my full-time work  journey was NaviSite, where there wasn't much of a free food culture when I was there. Just the guy who brought donuts in every Friday...But he got laid off, and there went our food, glorious food.

So I get why companies feed the troops.

Nothing says lovin' like a free slice of pizza and an ice cream sandwich.

But nothing boosts morale like hearing that the company made their numbers for the quarter, and that business is looking good.


Joe said...

"In the latter years of Softbridge, we played down Friday Party a bit, and played up Friday lunch, where we held a weekly meeting and took turns bringing in dessert. (We only had a few dozen people there, so it wasn't all that onerous.) Woe betide anyone who forgot it was their turn to do dessert. Come noon, they would have to head out and pick up something on the quick."

Good memories, Maureen! I only knew how to make one dessert (two varieties of trifles). I wonder if anyone noticed?

After Softbridge, I worked at a tiny startup. Once we grew a bit, one of our releases started to fall behind, and people were asked to work late. In return, the office manager cooked dinner for everyone on the grill out back.

Once upper management realized that people were only staying for the grub, and leaving immediately after, the barbeques ended, as did the evening work. (I think the release went out eventually...)

I've found that "food as motivation" has a rather short shelf life.

Herry said...
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