VITAL SIGNS: Mind Your Mannas

VITAL SIGNS: Mind Your Mannas - How's the grub here? This was always a great opener for social scientists testing the morale of institutions - armies, schools, companies.

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How's the grub here? This was always a great opener for social scientists testing the morale of institutions - armies, schools, companies.

The answers told you everything about the hierarchy and relationships between the organisation's levels, its standards and the degree of internal cohesion. In their brilliant pioneering '80s book Foodies, Ann Barr and Paul Levy said that food - and thinking about food - defined and symbolised the central issues of our time, our politics, our expectations, our styles and our relationships.

Thirteen years later they're so obviously right. The culture of thinking and talking about and experimenting with food is universal, expressed in restaurant openings, the media (celebrity chefs, hours of food programming) and at home (M&S microwave exotica for one).

How is it reflected in the workplace? Think about your food policy and what it says about you and your company. As a manager what have you done to better - or worsen - the food conditions of the people who work for you? Have you thought through the implications of making an effort to get people to eat together, to eat well, to experiment with their diet and so on? Have you made the cost trade-off - long-term morale against short-term costs? Are you an '80s moderniser, a killer of canteens? Do you eat at your desk most days or eat out? Or send your secretary out for something? Eat in a directors' or senior staff dining room? What's it like, and how do junior staff feel about it?

All these food habits and rituals are matters of utter fascination to everyone. The boss at his desk, with a sandwich, says one thing; the directors' dining room, with its repro chairs, trad prints and silver service says quite another (it say archaic 'Them and Us'); and the mass canteen - long-heated slop with chips - says something else again.

Analysis and experimentation with industrial eating yields disproportionate benefits. Talking about how you eat and what you eat really gets people going.

On a more individual level too, you are what you eat. A host of clues about where you've come from and where you plan to go are enshrined in what anthropologist Margaret Visser called the 'rituals of dinner'. The stuff you eat, the amount you eat, the places you eat it in and the way you talk about it are important corporate issues.

The consumption of dumb food now shouts 'dumb'. It's a time capsule that leaves people thinking you don't know anything - about social trends, consumers or aesthetics. But if you really live on pork pies and slippery ham sandwiches, it gets worse. People will worry about your health in the same way that they worry about heavy drinkers' livers - in a censorious, tutting way. They'll talk about your weight, your lack of self-discipline and your self-destruct button.

Being overweight and unfit from eating a bad diet is regarded as a serious kind of delinquency in fast-track corporate America (where the the spectre of underclass obesity still haunts them). I imagine the more bourgeois members of the Cabinet are fascinated by the question of John Prescott's diet. And what's the betting that someone hasn't taken him aside to point out the benefits of bottled water and fruit over lager and pavlovas.

Obviously hotels, clubs and restaurants are great networking centres but there's another, covert, role for the smartest places. They are educational establishments for the aspiring lad, teaching him what's fashionable, how to serve it, how leading-edge dining rooms are decorated and a host of things that boys on the move (it's usually boys) can learn from and seek to re-apply when they start entertaining. Lots of managers living the high life on expenses have gone back to perplexed wives and girlfriends demanding that they reproduce the whole package - the food, the serving style, the whole mise-en-scene of something they've seen on E 57th or in Soho - back home in Teddington or Guildford.

But watch it, if you're going to take your guidance to life from, say, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, don't expect it to advance your career with the St John's crowd, or vice versa. Pick your influences carefully. Once there was a clear hierarchy in these things - just pick the top places and they'll see you right for years. Now you've got to be a lot cleverer; its Style Wars out there.

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