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As a benefit of our mixed-methods approach cf. As an exception to this pattern, Dacin, Munir, and Tracey explored the question of communal eating among university students; however, they do so with the primary intention of understanding the role of cafeterias in relation to individual-level identity formation.

Similarly, Fine a studied the relevance of occupation-specific rhetoric among restaurant cooks; however, his focus on the role of language in relation to specific kinds of work could be about any profession e. More commonly, researchers have mentioned the roles served by cafeterias without highlighting much if any organizational significance. Similarly, Kellogg , p. In contrast with previous work that often scratches various interesting surfaces regarding the potential importance of worksite eating, our study is intended to focus attention on the particular role of cafeterias and other communal eating locations as spaces where organizational costs and benefits should be considered in pursuit of facilitating cooperation among coworkers and enhancing team performance.

Against this backdrop, our study of how professional firefighters use food in their worksites i. Outside of contemporary workplace settings, anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists have studied the variable ways in which eating together is important for human groups.

For example, in the broadest of lights, it is notable that evolutionary studies of the origins of Homo Sapiens have highlighted communal cooking and eating as quintessential human traits Wrangham, Indeed, most important social events or rituals in contemporary societies continue to involve some kind of food. Mixing social and work relationships, archaeological evidence has indicated a long tradition of food being utilized as a managerial tool for incentivizing labor in prehistorical environments.

Such events are comparable to contemporary holiday parties e. The rich anthropological evidence of group-level functionality of food sharing for feasts e. An important limitation with respect to anthropological studies of food among pre-industrial groups in relation to worksite eating is that related activities such as food production and cleaning are unbundled and outsourced in most contemporary workplaces to food service workers and janitorial staff.

At a finer-grain scale, there also exists a body of research that focuses on the relationship between specific types of food and group-oriented decision making. Similarly and less surprisingly, Sayette et al. In the case of our study of firehouses, although it is valuable to recognize that specific food types are known to influence behavior, there is too much variety of specific types of food and beverage—although alcohol is prohibited—to be able to examine any specific food influences because there is no centralized control of the menu across the fire department that we studied.

We expect that this variety is common across other work environments, though, where employees are not expected—as in a factory setting, for example—to eat mainly and regularly from a company cafeteria.

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Although those emergencies often present life-threatening situations that require speed, strength, cooperation, and skill to address, the amount of time that firefighters need to spend at their stations requires that they also eat, sleep, and recreate at their stations. Against those backdrops, firefighters have developed a broadly accepted, recognized, and celebrated tradition that coworkers will jointly consume meals that they prepare for themselves e.

Indeed, there exists a subgenre of cookbooks that focus exclusively on recipes generated by firefighters e. Firehouses, which traditionally have extensive kitchen facilities, are useful to consider as an endpoint that is shared, perhaps, with some restaurants Fine, b on the spectrum of workplaces where coworkers prepare food and eat together. Given that the organizational variable of commensality of coworkers is typically overlooked, though, firehouses provide a useful entry point for analyzing the subject of workplace eating.

Although fire departments make a practice to include full kitchens in firehouses, all aspects of kitchen use are contingent on self-government by the firefighters. Comparable to the way in which cafeterias in large corporate offices are not typically mandatory locations for employees to eat, it is notable that firefighters neither need to use kitchens—especially in urban settings with nearby restaurants that provide delivery service—nor do they need to use any part of the kitchens e.

As a matter of practice, though, firefighters do tend to fully engage the resources that are available to them for the collective production and consumption of food. With the benefit of our research, we are able to gain a fine-grained understanding of the dynamics that involve commensality among professional firefighters. As illustrated in the left side of Figure 1 , which aims to reflect the diversity of variables that we just reviewed, the planning of meals and preparation of food that traditionally occurs in firehouses are independent from the specific—and much more common—activity of coworkers eating together.

We can highlight, however, that the act of talking together during a meal a seems to be a critical reason to expect why commensality might increase overall cooperation and b is a common aspect of eating together among coworkers in most contemporary settings. With respect to eating and talking, the two activities appear almost definitionally intertwined as long as the neighboring eaters are familiar with each other.

The main relationship that our study aims to explore and highlight involves the association between eating together and team performance. As Kozlowski and Ilgen suggested in their review of mechanisms that encourage cohesion within groups, it is plausible that commensality i. Notably, our study is also designed to consider the relevance of environmental factors e.

Given, though, the great variety of foods consumed in firehouse kitchens ranging from spaghetti with clams to fried chicken sandwiches, it is not feasible to focus on specific food and beverage influences. Through this early investigation into the role of commensality among coworkers, our goal is to identify the presence of relationships that might help managers and future researchers facilitate greater work-group performance.

In addition to informing the current practice of several large employers providing food as a fringe benefit for professional employees e. In this respect, understanding the place of commensality in relation to organizational performance is uniquely important as a potential mechanism that enhances performance within firms. During the course of 15 months, we conducted complementary qualitative and quantitative research with a fire department in a large city in the United States that employs more than 2, people.

Through the first step, we were able to gain qualitative data that we used to refine our focus for the quantitative measures that we gained through a department-wide survey. With joint labor—management support, the first author was able to visit 13 firehouses across a large city over the course of 2 weeks. Likewise, as part of the informed consent process, participants understood that their comments would only be considered anonymously outside of the interview.

Whereas we anticipated that one-on-one interviews with the shift officer would be the foundation of our qualitative observations, the first author embraced the opportunity of talking concurrently with all of the on-duty firefighters, as well as the officers. Typically, the semistructured group conversations occurred in the area where meals were consumed, and all of the interviews started with introductory questions about the ways in which the firefighters usually ate in the firehouses.

The Appendix provides the interview guide that the first author used as a reference for the interviews. Of interest, several of the interviews were interrupted by alarm calls and those experiences provided natural topics of conversation as well e.

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Of relevance to our study of organizational commensality, paramedics are consequently not part of meal planning and production at the firehouses, although firefighters typically offer them servings of their food and often pack food for the paramedics to eat while they are responding to calls outside of the firehouse. In contrast with the university dining rooms that Dacin et al.

Supported by our observations inside firehouses, we learned through our interviews that firefighters regularly spend time in the dining room—adjacent to the cooking equipment—after returning from alarms e.

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Whereas other locations in some of the firehouses could be used for debriefing, the biological and social need to replenish oneself after responding to an alarm call explains some of the centrality of the kitchen. Our ethnographic approach to studying firehouses adds important informal perspectives to previous studies that focus on formal processes. Notably, though, firefighters are clear to import significantly more meaning into the commensal process and no one during our site visits explicitly volunteered cost savings or time savings as the reason they cook and eat together.

It is notable in this context that the department we studied is regulated by civil service hiring practices and—although firefighters might historically have included a significant number of actual kin—most departments, including the one that we studied, do not consider family ties in the hiring process. As a function of the schedule used by the department that we studied, each shift that we interviewed tended to join in one prepared meal—lunch for the day shift and dinner for the night shift.

More specifically, work groups serving the hr daytime shifts typically cooked and ate a midday meal, whereas the hr overnight shifts, which start at 6 p.


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Given this schedule, it is notable that some firefighters are known to eat dinner at home before eating again at the firehouse. Whereas such behavior might be motivated by a physical desire to eat e. Indeed, the second main theme that we gathered through the interviews was that ideal work groups or platoons functioned like ideal families.

Given that she clearly did fit in the department, she made that observation primarily with a sense of pride although it is notable in this context that Anderson specified exclusion from firehouse meals as a potential avenue for harassment. With respect to diversity of food preferences, we did interview one vegetarian firefighter with decades of service who a did not eat the same foods as others at meals during his regular shifts but b carefully made it a practice to eat his brown bag meals at the same time and place as the rest of the crew and contributed to kitchen cleaning just as most firefighters who do not cook are expected to do.

To summarize the findings of our qualitative research, we found detailed evidence concerning the nature of commensality among firefighters in the firehouses that were part of our sample.


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  • The exceptional case of the veteran vegetarian firefighter who joins in collective eating—with his own food—presents a strong illustration of the role of commensality within firehouses. Methodologically, the flexibility that was offered by the close interest demonstrated by the firefighters permitted the first author to ask a wide range of questions for understanding workplace eating in broader organizational contexts. At any of the several points when a firefighter asked why a particular question was being asked e. For example, although we asked questions about job satisfaction, cooperative behavior within the work groups, and unit-level performance patterns in our interviews, we believe that those variables are best investigated systematically and quantitatively.

    Consequently, the breadth of our sample permits us to consider the influence of variation with respect to eating practices among coworkers. For the purposes of our statistical analyses, we used dummy variables of male and European American to examine influences of gender and ethnicity. In their roles as shift leaders, officers are the first line of supervision for firefighters.

    Officers have the knowledge to answer this kind of comparative question, as they are routinely transferred every few years to gain experience in different locations. Although fire departments are increasingly seeking to create their own measures of unit-level performance e. To support strong participation, we asked participants to identify demographic variables of gender, age, and job tenure categorically as an extra guard for anonymity.

    For example, instead of asking for specific ages, we asked participants to identify their age within one of 10 categories ranging from 18—24 1 to 65 or more For job tenure, we asked participants to identify the number of years they have served the department in one of seven categories ranging from 0—5 1 to 31 or more 7. Participants were asked a set of questions that relate to the social organization of food consumption within their regular work-groups.

    Given the temporary rotation of assignments that firefighters periodically face, we also asked for an indication of when they last worked at a work group that did not regularly cook with options ranging within the past 6 months, past year, past five years, or never. Participants were instructed to score with a 5-point range from 1 never to 5 very often. As our main within-subjects test, we asked participants to complete the same scale in relation to their personal experiences with other work groups. Following Eisenberger et al. Responses to this question are important indicators of low response bias because if participants felt a need to impress anyone seeing the data, there would have been strong pressure—amidst a political-economic environment where cutbacks in public services are common—for everyone to report that their assignments respond to a greater-than-average number of alarms.

    For the measures of commensality, participants tended to report a strong tradition of eating and cooking together in their current, primary assignments. For example, when officers were asked about the importance they attribute to group cooking and eating within firehouses, the average of 8. Looking in closer detail at the associations between organizational characteristics and commensal behaviors, Table 2 presents two sets of multivariate regression analyses that we conducted.

    For each of the regressions in Table 2 , to address the nonindependent nature of multiple ratings—an average of four—from officers at each of the firehouses in our sample, we followed the recommendations of Antonakis, Bendahan, Jacquart, and Lalive and used a cluster-robust variance estimator. This method incorporates the multilevel nature of our sample whereby each of the firehouses represented in our sample is shared by four platoons.

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    It is noteworthy—and consistent with our key research question—that eating together was significantly associated with unit-level performance in Model 1. Similarly, as the conceptual model in Figure 1 anticipates, one of the environmental variables number of alarms also was significant, indicating that busier firehouses tend to receive higher supervisory ratings. Consistent with the view generated by Models 1 and 2 in Table 2 that eating together and cooperative behavior have independently significant positive relationships with work-group performance, mediation analysis showed that our measure of cooperative behavior was not a significant mediator in the relationship between eating together and work-group performance.

    To take stock and juxtapose our main qualitative and quantitative findings, it is clearly the norm that firefighters in our sample frequently cook and eat together and that officers believe that commensality has a significant relationship with organizational performance. It is also clear that the cases where people do not cook are relatively uncommon and poorly regarded. Additional notable findings include the positive correlations between the number of alarms and the size of firehouses double house in relation to funding meals once each tour. We can speculate that busier, larger firehouses face more pressure to gain the economies of scale that exist when people cook together and that they minimize transaction costs by funding their meals once each tour instead of daily.

    As a prototypical example of worksites where coworkers eat with each other, firehouses provide a valuable entry point for exploring the organizational benefits that we find to be related with supports for workplace commensality. Previous organizational studies of firefighting have focused on studying the formal protocols of incident command systems in relationship to effective, efficient, and safe management at the sites of fires e.

    Similarly, Bacharach and Bamberger considered how unit-level organizational factors such as supervisory practices might favorably support the ways in which firefighters respond to traumatic events. In our case, the cross-sectional design of our research does not provide evidence of causality; instead, we can address our research question and conclude from our data that the informal tradition of workplace commensality within firefighting units is significantly and positively associated with team performance.

    Most generally, our findings illustrate the organizational benefits that can be facilitated through workplace commensality. Given firm-level differences in the degree to which cooperation among employees is desirable, it is also likely that some organizations would gladly discontinue supports for workplace commensality if it were established that cafeterias, for example, were fostering suboptimal cliques or other subunits the interests of which were not aligned with the firm cf.

    Campbell, As an entry point for studying the organizational benefits of commensality in contemporary professional worksites, our field research of firehouses includes several limitations that future studies can further consider. First, questions involving the relatively unique nature of firefighting and firefighters demand concern with respect to generalizability across professions and organizations.