Here's What Free Office Snacks Can — And Can't — Tell You About Your Job

"The less you felt valued at work, the more you clung to the few perks you were offered."
Free snacks are known to affect our emotions. But what do they tell us about how we're treated at work?
GaudiLab via Getty Images
Free snacks are known to affect our emotions. But what do they tell us about how we're treated at work?

Companies commonly use free snacks to persuade job candidates, employees and visitors into having positive feelings about a workplace. According to a 2018 report by the Society for Human Resources Management, the number of companies in the U.S. that provide free snacks and drinks to employees rose from 20% to 32% between 2013 and 2018.

Free snacks have been popularized by tech companies like Google, where a former human resources exec wrote that its food program was meant to promote fruitful interactions among employees away from their desks. And although you may not love your employer, corporations know we workers can build a deep emotional connection to snacks, because eating in general is emotional. In one job listing I read recently, a company listed free snacks and drinks as a reason “why you’ll love us.”

We can turn to snacks at work when under pressure. In one study on workplace stress among 2,782 manufacturing plant employees, researchers observed that “when pink slips were circulating, snacks highest in fats and calories would disappear quickest from the vending machines.”

Whether snacking can actually make us better performers is not conclusive. One 2011 study did not find a correlation between snacking on potato chips and sweets and better mental health and cognitive performance. Meanwhile, a 2014 article on productivity published in the Harvard Business Review argued in favor of frequent grazing to regulate blood sugar and make you a better employee. (When we get hangry and our blood sugar drops, we can have less willpower to stay focused, though other research has found that most people do not need frequent snacks to regulate blood sugar.)

The point is, snacks certainly inspire a lot of messy feelings. “Sometimes we use snacks as procrastination, or we’re bored and we need an energy boost, and sometimes snacks are pretty social,” said Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of six books on mindful eating. She added that free snacks are also enticing “because we like a good deal.”

Once workers start to rely on easy access to snacks, company morale can tank when they’re gone. “When those snacks are taken away that we count on to help to manage our appetite, then it wreaks havoc on everyone’s moods,” Albers said. “You have to rearrange your day around that expectation.”

Even seemingly minor changes can affect the staff-wide mood. When Uber offices downgraded from Stumptown to Starbucks coffee, employees took it as a sign of dark times, alongside factors like layoffs and abolishing employee questions at all-hands meetings.

But is this perk really a reliable indicator of a company’s culture? Employees and experts weighed in on what free snacks can actually tell you about how workers are valued.

When snacks are a thoughtful gesture

For client services associate Catherine Chapman, a specific birthday treat provided information about how she was valued as an employee. Chapman has Type 1 Diabetes and at a previous job, Chapman said that her boss — who knew of her condition — got her a small cake, which left her “awkwardly turning down a slice or having to play roulette with the ingredients and my insulin intake.”

When her birthday came up at her new job, her new manager provided snacks she could actually eat. “It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture that resonated strongly with me,” Chapman said, adding that it “showed a willingness to adapt for the betterment of employees, which is something I can attest to [management] doing in other areas.”

“We often don’t get that pat on the back that we want or deserve, so extra little things like food at work really mean a lot to people,” Albers said.

For one digital marketing strategist who asked not to be identified, the distribution of office snacks were an indicator of how differently men and women were valued at her company. She said that male leaders had their offices “supplied with various granola bars, nuts, candies and mints daily” while women who had offices but were not as senior did not get snacks.

Snacks are great, but they aren’t a reliable indicator of good company culture

In his book on the surprising science of meetings, organizational psychologist Steven G. Rogelberg recommended bringing snacks to enable focused and energetic meetings. “Not only do people enjoy treats, snacks help build an upbeat mood state and foster camaraderie that can carry into the substance of the meeting itself,” he writes.

But snacks can’t make up for other workplace issues, and their presence can reveal uncomfortable truths about an organization’s culture. For one contractor who worked at a major tech company for two years, company-provided snacks became a meal that allowed her to keep working during weekend, night and holiday shifts. She said there was usually nothing open in the surrounding area during her shifts to get food. “Thousands of us survived off popcorn and cashews,” she said. “But they were only restocked on days that [full-time employees] worked.”

In this way, snacks can be used to promote a certain company culture — but aren’t a reliable indicator of a good one. Office snacks can send very different signals, depending on how they’re used, said Monique Valcour, an executive coach. “There’s the idea of the basket of chips that you can grab anytime you want and run back to your desk and keep working, and this is why you can work really late,” she said. “Or is it, we get together every Friday afternoon and kind of share and bond and talk about what’s going on in the week, and we enjoy those snacks at the same time. Those are two different signifiers.”

For the tech contractor, who asked not to be named due to fear of career reprisal, the snacks sent mixed messages. On one hand, she thought, “At least they feed me.” But on the other, she hated her job.

“The less you felt valued at work, the more you clung to the few perks you were offered,” she noted. “They used snacks to keep you comfortable [so] that you won’t get up and scream at your job, but not so comfortable that you don’t have one foot out the door.”

There’s one right way to use office snacks to evaluate your job

To reach a healthy perspective on your office snack culture, think about how you would feel if the food suddenly disappeared.

“If you take the snacks away, what remains? If it’s actually a shitty company to work for ... then I can see why it would be pretty upsetting,” Valcour said. “But if it’s like, ‘We have managers who really trust us here and have our best interests at heart and we all have a sense of a shared vision,’... then whether or not you have free snacks is probably not going to shift your feelings about your employer very much.”

As the tech contractor put it, “When my building stopped letting us have coffee on the weekends, there was a near rebellion. I quit a few weeks after,” she said. “It was a crap situation, but I sure do miss the free cold brew.”