Mike O'Neill works in the IT department at the state office complex in St. Paul, Minn., which means he’s the one who gets the calls when workers who have been eating at their desks discover that their keyboards are clogged with food-related detritus.
“They are disgusting,” he said. “Filled with crumbs and sticky – yuck! And of course, there are the times when one of them spills a drink on their laptop. Then it’s an emergency I have to deal with.”
But he’s not lobbying for a ban on eating at office workstations because he also has a confession to make.
“I eat lunch at my desk every day,” he said.
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Long gone is the two-hour, two-martini lunch that was the mainstay of the 1950s and ‘60s. Eating lunch at your desk, once considered something done only under unusual circumstances, has become the norm. According to a Gallup Poll, two-thirds of American workers eat at their desks more than once a week.
And not just lunch.
“It’s breakfast, too,” said Laura Barclay, founder of the Civility & Etiquette Centre. “It’s become part of our culture.”
Should it be banned?
The practice also has become a topic of debate in human resources departments looking for common ground between employees who want to eat at their desks and co-workers who object to the practice.
It “can be annoying to co-workers,” said Kathryn Helmke, employee relations and benefits director at MRA, a nonprofit employer association that serves more than 4,000 Upper Midwest companies. “There are aroma and hygiene issues. Some companies ban it.”
The bans typically target food allergies, pungent odors, messes being made in shared work spaces and leftover/discarded food that could attract rodents.
Employees who deal directly with customers – such as a dental office receptionist – almost always are forbidden to eat at their desks, and some employers feel that it’s better to have the same non-eating rules for everyone rather than let some partake and others not.
Why we do it
Whatever the rules may be, the reasons behind this surge in desk-dining are many. They include:
“The work is driving our day and eating is secondary,” Helmke said. “I'll eat at my desk if it means that I can go home at 6 instead of 6:30.”
•No convenient access to cafeterias or restaurants.
And when the polar vortex swept down on us earlier this month, a lot of people’s definition of convenient was expanded to mean “not having to leave the building,” said Michelle Love, MRA’s chief marketing and technology officer.
•Replacing lunch with errands or exercise.
“I eat at my desk every day so I can take my hour lunch break to wander,” said Casey Wojchik, a communications coordinator in downtown Minneapolis. “All of us desk-job people need to get out and move around.”
•Healthier eating habits.
Some workers are eating several small meals a day, as recommended by numerous dietary studies. Others are shying away from greasy, fried fast food by bringing their own meals from home.
•Not wanting to interrupt the workflow.
“I am project-oriented, so I don’t like to take a break in the middle of something just to eat,” said Lindsey Young, a program manager at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul. “I also find that sitting in a break room to eat is monotonous and, quite honestly, a waste of time.”
The boss is not impressed
There is another reason often cited for in-cubicle eating, but everyone who has studied the issue agrees that it’s a bad one: trying to create the impression of being a dedicated employee willing to go the extra mile.
“If you’re sitting at your desk, you’re not building those relationships that are good for your career,” Barclay said.
“If you see your boss going out to lunch with your co-workers, it’s good for you to go, too. Otherwise, you’re just going to get more work piled on you while your co-workers get promotions.”
Helmke agreed: “Being successful in the workplace is about building relationships, and you can’t do that sitting at your desk.”
Take a break
In addition, numerous studies have shown that taking breaks enhances productivity.
“People think that by sitting at their desks (during lunch), they’re being more productive, but they’re not,” Love said.
Staying at your desk all day, day after day, can lead to increased stress levels that can affect a company in terms of reduced productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover, compensation claims, health insurance and medical expenses.
“We need breaks,” she added.
Of course, if you use your lunch break for, say, exercising, you still face the issue of eating at your desk when you return. There are some basic rules that will help you do that without irritating those at adjoining desks.
“Avoid things with strong aromas, such as garlic,” Barclay said. “Stay away from things that make a lot of noise when you eat them, like potato chips and, perhaps, soup – some people slurp their soup. If you have garbage, don’t throw it in your wastebasket; take it to a break-room receptacle. Don’t stack up empty takeout containers on your desk. If you share a work space, be sure to clean up all the crumbs.”
Desks at your lunch
As common as eating at one’s desk has become, Helmke thinks that the phenomenon might be about to peak. Or, at least, change.
“With smartphones and tablets and other wireless technology, we don’t have to be sitting at our desks” to be working, she said. “We can sit in a park and eat a sandwich and still be connected.”
In other words, instead of having lunch at our desks, we'll have desks at our lunch.