Google has long been known for its incredible work benefits—even in Silicon Valley, where tech start-ups frequently offer generous and competitive programs. In particular, the tech giant’s on-site dining options significantly increase employee satisfaction, retaining and attracting top talent.

The cafeterias have succeeded in creating positive social spaces and happy employees, but over the past five years, Google has wanted to achieve even more with its food program. Now, Google wants to alter people’s diet choices to be healthier.

Their approach is unique in that it does not require employees to eat a certain way, nor does it eliminate unhealthy choices. Sodas, sweet snacks, desserts, and other less healthy items have not been removed from the menu. Rather, Google has focused on rearranging the “foodscape” of cafeteria layouts and snack rooms as well as making vegetable dishes and healthier options more delicious and plentiful.

It’s all about the presentation: salad bars are placed up front, vegetable options have been expanded and placed first in the buffet line, smaller plates are provided, and dessert and meat portions have been reduced. Water and health snacks are displayed more prominently, while candies and sodas are stored in opaque bins and refrigerator compartments. “Spa water”—filled with fresh fruit or cucumbers—is accessible throughout the buildings.

According to this investigation, the program seems to be making quite an impact. In Google’s New York office, which serves more than 10,000 people each day, thousands of salads are served for breakfast—an option that was introduced just a couple years ago and certainly one that isn’t a typical breakfast choice in America. Water consumption has skyrocketed, as has seafood consumption. By moving unhealthy snacks farther away from the coffee machines, Google reduced snacking by 23% for men and 17% for women.

 

Choice Architecture To Encourage Healthy Decisions

There’s no doubt that Google is uniquely positioned to dedicate a huge amount of resources to their employees’ wellness. However, that doesn’t mean their tactics can’t be applied in companies with much fewer resources.

Google’s strategy made use of something called “choice architecture.” In behavioral science, this is when an environment is altered to change people’s behavior. Choice architecture doesn’t need to be something grand like building elaborate programs or new infrastructure. These can be subtle, intentional choices aimed to direct workers towards healthier decisions without using more company resources, such as the options below.

  • Arrange health content flyers near a coffee machine or hot water kettle. Employees will have more time to read through the information on a flyer while waiting for a drink to be ready, instead of simply walking by it on a bulletin board or in a hallway.
  • Rearrange the office layout or shared spaces to encourage movement throughout the day. Providing alternative seating options or meeting locations can facilitate more casual encounters between coworkers, while also giving people the option to move around or relax.
  • If a company offers snacks or drinks, water and healthier options should be placed in more visible and accessible locations. This doesn’t require changing current offerings, just rearranging what is already there. Also, employers can provide smaller plates or portion sizes to limit consumption, especially for less healthy snacks.
  • If employees need to sign up to opt into a benefit—like enrolling in wellness challenges, participating in savings programs, or receiving health content and tips—consider whether it would be appropriate to sign up employees by default, with an “opt out” option instead.

Subtle changes are easy and affordable, and they can have just as big an impact as more direct interventions. In fact, they may be more helpful in changing an individual’s habits, which ultimately influence their long-term wellness the most.

If the healthy option is the easy option, people will be more likely to give it a try. Over time, these choices turn into habits and preferences that can extend beyond work hours. These workers can then lead the charge to making better food choices and wellness decisions at home and influence family members and friends in the process.

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