Here’s my dilemma. I run and attend a lot of meetings where food is provided so that everyone can ‘eat and work’ in the spirit of efficiency. What’s interesting is nine times out of ten, the food is still on the table an hour or two later – hardly touched. I’m sure everyone has noticed this phenomenon – but no one talks about it. It’s the elephant in the meeting room.
When we cater, are starving participants thrown off their train of thought for the entire meeting as they wrestle with the overwhelming desire to eat, yet resisting in case they commit a social faux pas of some kind?
My first observation is that food stays on the table more when participants don’t know each other very well. Clearly there’s a lot of people who are uncomfortable at being the first to dig in and are maybe concerned at spending the rest of the meeting with alfalfa sprouts unwittingly lodged between their front teeth. I get that. But how often does that really happen?
Second, when meetings are mostly made up of men, most of the food goes most of the time. When its mostly women, the food remains largely untouched. Don’t ask me why, I’m just saying.
This has led me, as a regular meeting host, to conduct catering experiments, while still presenting of course. As a result, here are my tips for making sandwiches disappear during meetings (and surely leaving participants satisfied rather than ready to eat their taxi driver on the way back to the office).
First, actively discuss the fact that food will be coming during the meeting. This prepares people and they can form a game plan and get a sense of the food vibe in the room. Don’t ask me what a food vibe is exactly but it exists.
Make the food accessible. Putting platters on a sideboard seems nice and contained, but hoping people will stand up (possibly when they are in a group of people they don’t know well) is folly. People rarely like to be the centre of attention in this way. Instead, make sure food is spread up and down your meeting table, in easy reach of everyone in attendance, not just the lucky few in prime positions.
Actively steer people toward the sandwiches by announcing its time to eat. As the host, you control the meeting agenda – make this just one more item. People are used to a ‘time’ for meals. You need to put a box around it and tell people it’s now a meal-time. That triggers a bunch of primordial brain signals that helps engage the digestive system and switches brain wave patterns from higher level thinking to survival mode. (I may have made that up – but it sounds plausible!)
I have to say applying these tips myself is making a huge difference, and in my last meeting when I deployed all of these tips simultaneously (shock and awe style) there were very few sandwiches left compared to previous meetings.