Free pizza as a team-building tactic: 5 times it works, and 4 times it's a bad idea

Offering free pizza, or any food, can be beneficial for building morale and getting a team through tough times, but it's only part of the solution. Here's when, and when not, to do it.

Maybe health experts won't agree with this, but I am going to argue that there is a well-earned place for the pizza lunch in IT projects. In fact, I could even argue that the pizza lunch can be a staple of sound project management!

I have found pizza lunches to be useful in breaking the ice, especially when feelings between project members are frayed, or there are disagreements on project approaches that need to be resolved. In other cases, a pizza lunch can suddenly make a manager seem more human to onlookers while we are hunkering over pizza and bantering like an extended family on a picnic.

However, there are times when you should use the pizza (or any free) lunch, and times when you shouldn't. The great project managers always seem to know when the time is right.

So when you should have pizza (or other free lunches) for your project team, and when shouldn't you?

When to have the lunch:

1. At the kickoff of a new project

New projects are always exciting, and as the project manager you want to instill unbridled enthusiasm and camaraderie in your staff when a project begins. The pizza lunch is a great way for everyone to get together and get acquainted. It is also a great ice breaker for those who haven't worked together before.

2. When project intervention is needed

Especially in longer projects with large project teams, there are bound to be disagreements or personality conflicts that crop up between team members. If these situations exacerbate, they can lead to project disharmony and dysfunction. As a manager, you can't afford to let these tensions derail your project—and an unexpected pizza lunch can provide a much needed antidote. This lunch enables everyone to lay down their arms for an hour of fellowship, and to hopefully iron out some of the hard feelings. A casual lunch doesn't always resolve every source of friction—but as a project manager, I have seen it produce some great results.

SEE: Travel and Entertainment Expense Policy (Tech Pro Research)

3. When the team is exhausted and needs a break

There is a tipping point in long and complex projects when the team is mentally and emotionally exhausted and just can't give any more creative effort. This is break time and the pizza lunch provides a great venue for that break. For an hour, everyone can forget about deadlines and pressure. The team gets a well deserved break and returns to the project with refreshed minds and renewed energy.

4. At crunch time

Right before a long awaited project goes live, there is bound to be a period of high anxiety. The team will be wondering if it tested for every possible thing that could go wrong or if a partnering vendor will be reliable. A pizza lunch can again come to the rescue by providing respite from the anxiety.

5. During periods of high overtime

When employees on projects are having to put in a lot of extra hours to meet a deadline, a pizza lunch (or even pizza dinner) can be helpful. It is convenient because employees don't have worry about meals, and can continue their focus on the project.

SEE: How to build a successful project manager career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

When not to have the lunch

1. Just because

I have seen managers at companies that overuse pizza lunches start ordering these lunches just because they have the budgetary permission to do it. This is not good practice, because employees begin to perceive these lunches as the company's status quo and no longer as a reward or incentive.

2. All the time

The argument against pizza lunches every day is much the same as it is for "just because" lunches, but "all the time" free lunches get special mention because there now are companies in tech that provide these as standard practice. If the lunches are pizza or other fast food, this isn't good practice for several reasons: 1) these fast food lunches, when overdone, do not contribute to employee good health; 2) too much pizza (or food of any kind) can slow down afternoon work on projects while employees are digesting all of that intake; and 3) many new companies use the free lunch concept in place of providing higher salaries, and their employees know this. This doesn't necessarily encourage long-term retention of your most valued employees.

3. During design meetings

Project design meetings for databases, communications, and applications require high levels of critical thinking from all of your participating team members. This isn't the time for an informal pizza lunch.

4. During project reprimand meetings

Most project managers have encountered times when the project team isn't doing well, and they have to address the team with some stern words to get things going. These are serious meetings, and bringing in pizza should not even be a thought.

Also see:

Image: iStock/GaudiLab

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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