Who are you having lunch with today?


It’s become fashionable to talk about work as something more than being in the office or being productive from 9am to 5pm. We talk about working flexibly, at home, in cafes and on trains. Lunchtimes, though, are still the territory of the home made salad or local £3 meal deal.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have spent a lot of time lately interviewing for senior positions. The University I work for ran a campaign to hire a group of new professors and the whole experience has been fascinating (and successful). As ever with interviews – particularly, I think, senior ones – it has been striking how different the answers have been to very similar questions. In this campaign there were some fantastic ones but one stuck with me and got me thinking.

In answer to a question about collaboration, the candidate we were speaking to paused, thought for a moment, and then began their answer by saying “I am the kind of person who goes for lunch”. What followed was essentially an answer about listening and the value of learning about other peoples perspectives. What I loved about the answer is that I instantly knew what they meant.

Almost 10 years ago I had a job working with the European Union which involved fairly frequent trips to Brussels. I remember then being struck by how busy the restaurants were at lunchtime and how many of the people working there had lunch appointments. I spoke to somebody in the European Commission who told me that the easiest way to spot an English person is to look for who is eating a sandwich, at their desk, alone…

At the time I probably wrote this off as as another example of the industrious hard working English when placed beside their more relaxed European counterparts. What I hadn’t realised was that these shared lunches were much more than social events, and opportnuities to share the guilt of drinking wine in the middle of the day. When I did go along to these lunches with colleagues it was a different kind of ‘meeting’ or networking. It was more relaxed, of course, and people let off more steam than they might in a formal meeting, but there were lots of questions and lots of listening. The mealtime imperative of asking a long question so that you have time to eat some of your meal as you listen to the answer gave rise to a different kind of exchange. In my future HR text book I will call it ‘reflective mastication’.

I understand the reason for grabbing a sandwich at your desk. Apart from being cheaper, and giving you the ability to keep doing some work, it can often be a race to get things done so you can leave work on time – perhaps to meet other responsibilities outside. Maybe though, once a week or even just once a month we can invite a colleague or two for lunch. We can take the time to relax with them, share our thinking, and listen to each other without notepads, iPads, agendas or action point trackers. If we believe that organisations are, essentially, the sum of multiple perspectives, then the more of these perspectives we understand the better able we will be to meet the challenges that are waiting for us back at our desks.

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