The Next Great Retail Trend: The Office Break Room

In the office of tomorrow, the break room will be the heart of the organization…and the center of food & beverage innovation

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When you hear the words “office break room,” what do you picture?

For many people the following image comes to mind – a tiny, windowless space, outfitted with leftover office furniture, maybe a coffeepot and a dingy microwave.

If you’re lucky, perhaps it’s a slightly upgraded version. And while it might be cleaner or a little more open, if we’re being honest, it’s still pretty sterile and uninspiring.

Sadly, this is the reality for too many companies. And it’s a gigantic missed opportunity.

The office break room is often a mere afterthought. But a thoughtfully designed office break room has the potential to drive employee engagement, catalyze innovation, and reinforce the cultural practices that give a company a competitive edge.

In fact, in the workplaces of tomorrow, I predict that the break room will be the focal point, not an afterthought. Instead of a remote, lifeless space, the break room will be the beating heart of the organization.

What’s more, the centrality of tomorrow’s break rooms will mean that Foodservice will be a major driver – if not the driver – of CPG brand and product innovation, and have the potential to impact the industry landscape more than any other channel.

Here’s what the office break rooms of tomorrow will look like (and why).

More Home Than Office

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In general, workspaces in the future will start to look more and more like residential spaces. Instead of cubicles and closed offices, picture open, comfortable, and welcoming places that support productivity, but also facilitate creativity, rejuvenation, and even play.

This trend will be most pronounced in break rooms, which will feature amenities like snacks and beverages, and feel almost like your local Starbucks. (More on this below)

Why is this the case? Blame the Millennials.

In 2015, the Millennial generation became the largest segment of employees in the workforce. By 2020, nearly half of all American workers will be Millennials.

At the heart of this shift is the uniquely Millennial belief that “work/life balance” is an artificial construct.

Instead of work/life balance, Millennials subscribe to the “work-life integration” model. This idea simply acknowledges that most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work. Since our lives are mostly made up of work, separating “work” and “life” is a meaningless exercise.

The growing expectation is for employers to create a work environment where employees actually want to spend their time, and the break room is integral to this idea. Just as the kitchen is often the focal point of the home, the break room will be the focal point of the office. Instead of being hidden away, break rooms will be on full display, a source of pride for companies and employees alike. The break room will also serve as a showcase for the values and culture that makes a company great – and that attracts the top talent in the industry.

That’s why I predict more and more companies will actually turn their lobbies into break rooms. What better place to show off your company’s culture and values than right where visitors walk through the front door?

Curated and Experiential

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Break rooms at forward-thinking companies will create an employee experience that supports the company’s values, business objectives, and retention goals. Picture pop-ups, like you might see in a farmer’s market or Whole Foods. Employees will get to know the people and stories behind the brands, and try new products before they hit store shelves. We regularly throw events like this for our larger member offices. (In fact the above photo was taken at one such event last year.)

The break rooms of the future won’t just be expertly curated, they’ll also be thoughtfully merchandised. HR and Employee Experience staff will work directly with Foodservice partners to connect the right products with the right employees at the right time. This might mean seasonal promotions (Watermelon Road fruit jerky for summer or Pumpkin Spice RXBARs for the fall), or around big cultural events, like summer movies, music festivals, or sporting events.

The break room will also reflect the growing trend (and expectation) that companies consider the whole person when designing an employee experience. Just as managers are expected to view an employee in the full context of their family life, cultural background, hobbies, and personal aspirations, the break room will cater to the whole person with products that are relevant to all facets of an employee’s life. This might mean products specifically designed to take home to children, significant others, parents, grandparents – or even pets.

In fact, there’s no limit to the experiential innovations of the break room of tomorrow. No sensory detail will be overlooked. Inviting colors, music that inspires either quiet focus work or lively socializing depending on the time of day, thought provoking artwork, and plush, comfortable seating will all be de rigueur. Like high-end Las Vegas hotels, the most sophisticated break rooms may even feature curated scents. (After all, smell and taste are intimately linked.)

I also foresee breaks rooms with fully functional kitchens, where employees themselves can cook (or learn to cook). And why not? Human beings connect when they break bread together. Cooking classes or demonstrations by professional chefs facilitate bonding while giving employees real skills they can take with them.

The importance of the workplace as community hub will only become more pronounced as autonomous vehicles and on-demand delivery mean people are spending less time in other communal spaces like brick and mortar retail. For this reason, I predict that retail will actually be reorganized around office spaces, or integrated within workspaces.

It’s the same dynamic that gave birth to the rise of co-working spaces like Industrious and WeWork. Think about it – most of the people at Industrious are remote employees who can literally work from anywhere, yet choose to pay for a coworking space for the social and community benefits. In the very near future, the office will be the predominant space for community and connection.

The break room of the future will be a multi-disciplinary affair, leveraging retail and experiential marketing tactics with employee experience strategies. This is why it’s so vital to integrate feedback from people outside of Foodservice throughout the process. Not just employee experience and Foodservice experts, but people with shopper marketing, retail design, and consumer insights expertise. 

Foodservice has to evolve in order to keep up with employee and consumer expectations. Just as today’s Retailers are required to act like big CPG companies (with their own values and portfolio of brands that add up to a bigger vision), Foodservice will need to think and act like Retailers in order to provide the experience that companies and employees demand. This also means that Foodservice companies needs to actually hire people from these outside industries – and that have zero Foodservice experience. In this instance, their lack of experience is actually their biggest asset.

Designed for Serendipitous Encounters

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The break room of the future will also drive innovation via serendipitous encounters.

Steve Jobs famously believed that innovation required cross-collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach. Often, the most fruitful exchanges were “unplanned collaborations,” those that resulted from happenstance interactions between team members from different verticals.

In order to benefit from this type of collaboration, you have to create the necessary conditions for these encounters to occur. According to Jobs, that started with the office design itself:  

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity.”

Google’s David Radcliffe holds a similar point of view:

“Casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation and so when we think about our facilities around the world we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together.”

Break rooms are ideal places for these “casual collisions.” Communal spaces – especially places where employees share meals together – are vital for bonding, and are often the birthplaces of the relationships that eventually spark new ideas.

For this reason, the break room of tomorrow will feature communal tables that facilitate employee interaction, and will feature meals, snacks, and beverages that bring people of all stripes together.

Break rooms should also support all work-related behaviors. This might mean high tables where employees can bring their laptop and hunker down, spaces to conduct impromptu meetings, along with areas for socializing.

Support Healthier Habits

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As the war for talent heats up, employees increasingly expect perks like free snacks, beverages, and catered meals. Snacks must go from a nice-to-have perk to a must-have necessity if companies hope to attract and retain the best people.

But not just any snacks will do. They have to taste great (that’s a given) and be better-for-you.  

The forces driving this trend are both top-down and bottom-up. Employers want snacks that support productivity and engagement. This excludes your typical vending machine junk like sugar-laden candy and soda, which causes brain fog and energy crashes.

On the flipside, employees themselves increasingly demand healthier options too. They want food that provides a needed energy boost and satisfies hunger, but that won’t sabotage their health and fitness goals or negatively affect their mood. This means brands that are low-glycemic, high in healthy fats and lean protein, and don’t contain chemicals or other harmful additives.

The break room of the future will combine a mix of complimentary, partially subsidized, and pay-as-you offerings. This might be free healthy snacks, as well as healthy grab-and-go meals and beverages available for purchase.

Informed By a Continuous Insights Feedback Loop

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There’s another underutilized aspect of the office break room – it’s a treasure trove of consumer data.

We’re bullish on the potential of consumer insight in the office. In fact, I occasionally describe SnackNation as “a data company disguised as a snack company.”

First and foremost, in-office consumer data helps create a better employee experience. Insights enable employers to dial in the optimal curation for their office, with the right mix of recurring favorites and new products to keep things exciting. Over time, the experience only gets better.

For Foodservice companies, this leads to better margins and a stickier customer experience, as employees see changes based on their feedback and feel heard and appreciated. As data collection becomes more sophisticated, we’ll see integrated technology like mobile apps, where employees can get rewards for their ratings or buy products for their homes with just a few swipes.

Because they’ve been traditionally hard to reach, in-office consumers are a highly sought-after consumer cohort. For this reason, these consumer insights are extremely valuable to early-stage brands, who can test new flavors, packaging, and messaging with a highly relevant, engaged audience.

Why is this so important? Emerging brands like the ones we support at SnackNation are the ones poised to make the biggest impact on things like public health and sustainability. SnackNation only works with better-for-you, purpose-driven brands. These are often local, mom and pop brands, or brands that are owned by underrepresented groups. With this valuable break room data, these brands can make faster, better decisions – and therefore make a much bigger impact.

With a retail-like in-office experience and a continuous consumer data stream, there’s no limit to what Foodservice looks like ten years from now. We might even see Foodservice brands launching their own private label brands. In our world of infinite consumer choice, the brands closest to the consumer will win, and there’s no better way to get close to the consumer than in the break room.

Ready to elevate your break room today? Try SnackNation for free and give your team an unforgettable employee experience.