Had Lunch? Four Ways to Improve the Workplace Dining Experience in India 
Penny Lewis in India, Workplace Design, Workplace Dining, fifty On

Workplace cafeterias in India teem with chaos born of poor design choices. Image © David Lam

Every day I’m asked the same question from colleagues, friends, and even the taxi drivers who are honking their way through the congested streets of Bangalore. “Had lunch?”

I used to answer so specifically. “Not yet, but I’ll be heading out for lunch soon!” Then I realized I was completely missing the point.

Food is woven tightly into the fabric of Indian culture. Even on the busiest of days, pressing problems are put on pause so that people can gather over a meal. Food from home is shared lovingly amongst groups of friends and colleagues. I’ve learned that “Had lunch?” is simply India’s polite way of saying hello, much like America’s equally rhetorical, “How’s it going?”

But while broader Indian culture places significant value on food and sharing meals with family and friends, Indian workplaces have yet to catch up with the current trends transforming corporate dining. My personal experiences in cafeterias across India are, by and large, dreadful. Picture large, cavernous halls packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people trying to cram into long mess tables and standing in queues at serving counters. High-traffic café spaces designed like busy train and bus stations, with an emphasis on ease of maintenance over aesthetics or comfort. Clanging metal serving dishes, ringing cell phones and café servers shouting out order numbers as the unfortunate norm. Durable surfaces, such as vitrified tile floors and painted gypsum ceilings, adding reverberation to an already chaotic environment.

The workplace dining experience in India needs to evolve so that is more representative of the social importance of food in India. Here are four ways to transform the experience and move Indian workplace dining into the future.

Improve the Environment

With real estate costs on the rise across India’s major metros, every square foot within a workspace needs to perform effectively. Cafeterias take up large spaces that are underutilized outside of lunchtime peaks. Rather than a one-size-fits-all mess hall approach, a variety of seating types, settings and dining venues should be provided to allow employees to utilize dining spaces as comfortable social zones during non-peak periods. Increased mobility could also allow knowledge workers the opportunity to have café spaces act as an extension of their workspaces.

To improve occupant comfort, strictly utilitarian finish materials and furnishings can be replaced with options that provide texture, pattern and warmth, while simultaneously improving acoustics. Textured ceramic tiles that emulate wood planks should replace plain vitrified tiles. Colorful carpet tiles could enhance informal seating areas. Slatted and perforated metal ceiling systems could provide visual interest while controlling reverberation of sound. Café tables and lounge chairs, upholstered booths with washable upholstery, and bar height tables and stools could break up the visual monotony of traditional seating areas. Finishing touches, such as higher quality cutlery; glassware and serving trays, would complete the experience.

Create an Experience

To elevate the dining experience, Indian workplaces will need to revamp their approaches to menus. Rather than doling the thali and a variety of other prepared menu items from a bain marie, the most successful food operators worldwide provide live cooking counters where diners watch chefs prepare fresh meals. Excitement is also generated by providing seasonal changes to the operators and rotating a variety of cuisines into the café.

As employee wellness garners more global attention, organic foods and acknowledgement of special diets are finding their ways into the workplace. Some businesses display the healthiest food choices prominently at the café entry, encouraging staff to make smarter choices about their meals. Fresh fruits and vegetables are replacing sugary snacks, and whole grain and high protein foods provide nourishment for improved energy and focus, which in turn enhances employee effectiveness and performance.

Improve Operations

Beyond the food, the overall dining experience should take into account critical operational features. In a traditional cafeteria, an employee either approaches each serving counter to see what the daily meal offering is, or he or she visits a single payment kiosk that has pre-plated menu items on display in a deli case. Crowds inevitably bunch up at such spaces while trying to peek at the food and pay for meals. To reduce bottlenecks, workplace designers should take a cue from theme park designers and use well-orchestrated queues and flows to craft the user experience from entry to exit. Studying users’ movement and sightlines will help designers facilitate a more streamlined dining experience.

Technology is also enabling rapid changes in how we shop for and pay for our meals, and it has the potential to further reduce traffic jams. The inclusion of digital menu boards allows for the display of rotating menus in a variety of locations and, more importantly, disperses the queues. Mobile platforms can take this one step further. Through cell service and/or WiFi, diners can review app-enabled menus from anywhere at the office. Selecting a meal can happen at an employee’s workspace or while waiting for the elevator. Payments can also be made through debit or credit cards, electronic wallets, or deducted from employee RFID cards. Many non-corporate food service operators in Bangalore have already implemented effective app-based services with rotating menus. With just a few clicks on your mobile device, freshly prepared meals are added to your cart and your delivery location and preferred payment method are selected.

Embrace Change

So if an employee can order food through an app and within 30 minutes receive a fresh meal that’s delivered directly to them, will they even want to go to the noisy cafeteria, stand in a queue, and receive food served from a bain marie that’s slopped onto an acrylic serving tray?

With disruptive technology changing the way people shop for their mid-day meal, corporate India will need to embrace change to stay relevant. Businesses can adopt a distribution system from a single kitchen; bicycle or motorcycle messengers could deliver food to individual employees across campus. The massive cafeteria square footage could then be redistributed, placing smaller, multi-functional spaces within close proximity of the office areas. Cafes would transform from overly crowded stress zones to spaces that offer dining, recreation and socialization that is so important to this culture.

So, as we consider these ideas to evolve the workplace dining experience in India, I now ask you, “Had lunch?”

Penny Lewis is a Workplace Studio Director, a native Texan (but a “global citizen”), and since 2013, a resident of Bangalore, India. She believes in questioning and challenging the ways things are as a means of discovering the way things should be. In addition to commercial interior design and writing, she is passionate about travel, solving puzzles, and making a difference in the lives of others. Contact her at penny_lewis@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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