8 Office Safety Guidelines for Food at Work during COVID-19

Food at Work Safety

Create a Plan for your Workplace

As employers and property managers plan to reopen during COVID-19, office safety is at the top of everyone’s minds. Countless articles have been written about the topic in general, but very little information is available as it relates specifically to corporate dining and workplace food programs.  

In our new reality, people will still need to eat and all employers should have a plan for making sure meal breaks are handled in the safest possible way.

Below are food related considerations and ideas for keeping offices safe and healthy during COVID-19.

1. People are leaving the comforts of their homes to come into work. Think of food as a much needed reward.

Employees are stepping outside of their comfort zone in order to enter the workplace. They will not only need to feel secure, but also appreciated. Food can play an important role in keeping people happy and engaged. It just needs to be handled correctly. Luckily, the food service industry is already heavily regulated and well positioned to supply your employees with meals that they can look forward to every day.

2. Food itself is not the problem, but how people behave in the front and back of the house makes all the difference

COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness, as stated by both the FDA and CDC. But how people behave around food is critical. In the back and front of the house, clear guidelines promote healthy behavior and office safety.

In the back of the house, strict adherence to safety procedures has always been the modus operandi in well-run kitchens. The food service industry is heavily regulated by the government and teams are accustomed to following strict procedures. New rules related to COVID-19 are relatively simple additions to the foundation of back-of-the-house discipline. 

During the uncertainties of a pandemic, there is comfort to be found in structure at the front of the house. Trader Joe’s, for example, is great inspiration from another industry. Associates and customers partner in following procedures that are clearly spelled out from the moment one approaches the front door. In much the same way, a well managed food-at-work program should instill confidence in a workforce with trained staff proactively promoting a safe environment through set guidelines. 

3. Ensure everyone on site is healthy and protected 

The following are generally found within the broader category of protecting people inside the workplace, however they are still important to highlight as components of food-at-work best practices:

  • Temperature checks are recommended for each person entering the facility (including food service workers), with 100.4° F / 38° C and above considered to be fever level by the CDC. SHRM provides detailed guidance on the specifics of planning and executing a temperature check policy. 
  • The importance of handwashing should be heavily stressed, with instructions clearly explained in writing. Hand sanitizer should be readily available within the food service area. 
  • Face masks should be worn by food service employees, regardless of whether they are required as part of the workplace organization’s broader PPE policy or not. Due to the nature of the job, food service workers are prone to being in close proximity. The use of masks also helps instill confidence among customers, especially if masks worn by people serving food are uniformly consistent or branded. 

4. Promote social distancing during mealtimes

Commonly accepted social distancing practices should, of course, be applied consistently throughout the workday, with broader policies addressing break rooms and dining areas. Specific mealtime considerations related to how and where food is served include the following: 

  • Posters and floor markings should be used to promote social distancing. When we are hungry, the rules can go out the window, which is why visual cues are especially important during mealtimes. 
  • Consider time slots or reservations for meals. One simple way to do this is to assign times according to the first letter of an associate’s name. 
  • Made-to-order scenarios like grills and omelet bars in cafeterias should temporarily convert to an order-ahead system whenever possible.  
  • Multiple one-off food deliveries bring more people into the office. The coming and going of delivery drivers contributes to crowding in elevators and other common areas. To limit exposure in workplaces that choose to permit deliveries, employees should be encouraged to team up in placing bulk orders and meet their drivers outside the building. 
  • Leaving the building to visit restaurants for dine in or take out creates another period of heavy foot traffic in lobbies and elevator banks, the potential need to retake temperatures, and exposure to other people within facilities that have varied safety protocols.

5. Encourage employees to stay in and stay safe

Providing appealing in-house food options and subsidizing meals (even partially), are two strong ways to encourage team members to remain within the safe office environment your team has worked so hard to provide. As with any business decision, costs should be weighed against benefits and risks. 

6. Reduce contact with surfaces and sanitize frequently 

As clarified by the CDC on May 22, people can get the virus by touching a contaminated surface and then placing their hands on their nose or mouth. However “this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” While somewhat reassuring for the general population, by no means should this be a reason to discount the importance of keeping surfaces clean (always an important practice). Surface contact should still be limited too, whenever possible. With that in mind, we recommend the following:

  • Turn off self-checkout kiosks and place high-touch, unmonitored self service areas on hold. Utilize trained staff members to serve items like soup, salad, and coffee.
  • Food packaging should be wipeable and sealable and cutlery should be individually wrapped 

In addition to keeping everyone in the office as safe as possible, these practices can instill confidence in a post-quarantine world.

7. Address customer emotions so people feel safe and comfortable during meals

From how we interact with others to what we appreciate in life, we return to the workplace with a changed perspective of the outside world. Food, which often triggers sense-memories, is no exception. When handled correctly, mealtimes can be an opportunity to positively engage employees and boost morale. 

  • Food service providers have the opportunity to put their customers at ease by highlighting all safety practices and being transparent in answering any questions.  
  • The sense of sterility from face masks is a double-edged sword. While they help us feel safe, masks also obscure facial expressions. Food service staff should be encouraged to be especially friendly in tone and remember that it is possible to smile with your eyes. Name tags with a smiling picture can also help convey the human aspect.
  • People are empathetic towards those most impacted by the pandemic. Food service workers have been on the frontlines. Providing the option to leave a tip or recognizing staff members in internal communications like newsletters are great ways to help them feel appreciated.  
  • There is a strong social movement in most communities to support local businesses. Employers can take part in many ways – from procuring pastries from local bakeries for breakfast to inviting in local restaurants to serve lunch. 

After cooking at home for months, people are craving quality and variety in their meals. Employers should ask their food service providers to offer meals that people will genuinely look forward to. 

8. Ask for flexibility and creativity from your food service provider if your population is returning in phases

As there is still so much up in the air in the coming months, no plan should be written in stone. Workplace population will fluctuate, as not everyone will return to the office at the same time. Your food service provider should be flexible and creative as they scale service up over time.

Full-service cafeteria relaunches in the workplace will not be feasible until returning population levels are back to “normal.” That being said, people still need, and more importantly, want, to eat. There are solutions to this problem, including temporary Popup stations, bulk orders of delivered food, and boxed lunch catering, to name a few. 

The global pandemic is forcing every organization in every industry to make drastic changes to how business is conducted and how to keep their employees safe. Food at work will continue to evolve, despite the circumstances, even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat. 

Additional Resource: The Future of Food at Work Webinar Recording

How to Plan for Food at Work in the Post Quarantine World: Keeping Safe and Boosting Employee Enthusiasm about Returning