Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Long Lunch Table

For the last two years, I've had the pleasure of working for companies that are still small enough to fit in a room; small enough so that everyone can squeeze at the same lunch table. Even at Khan Academy, where we now have almost 50 people in the office, we have a long table made up of many tables, squished together so as to appear a continuous structure. I never really thought about that until today, when we were talking about plans for our new office.

You see, our small company is getting bigger, and we're moving into a larger space. We have to decide which of the traditions and configurations to bring over from our current space, and which to leave behind as a thing-we-did-when-we-were-smaller. One of those is the team lunch. Our office admin announced to all of us that they're working hard to make sure that we can continue to all eat lunch together. A devil's advocate amongst us responded with "Why? Why do we need to eat lunch at the same time and same table if we can only hear a 4 person radius around us?" He had a good point, yet he also provoked a visible gut reaction in many. But, why? What reasons did we come up with?

We kerfuffled for a bit, trying to justify our insanity on holding onto our irrational needs, until my colleague spoke up. He told the story of lunch at his last company, which was a few times larger. They had a long lunch period, with many small lunch tables in a big cafeteria, and employees were expected to lunch at different times, to distribute the lines over time. Employees would walk in, look around at the lunch tables, not see anyone they knew - or not see anyone they felt confident in table-crashing - and go back to their desks. Eventually, many of them defaulted to eating lunch at their desks. Lunch had gone from being a social affair to being a daily reminder of loneliness.

In fact, when he recalled this, I remembered feeling the same way at Google. Sure, I would know people scattered around the tables in the cafeteria, but it took guts to feel like I could impose myself on any given table. There were days that I couldn't muster up enough of those guts; and those were the saddest.

And now, finally, I realize the simple brilliance of the long lunch table and the single lunch period. When you get your food, you don't have to gather the confidence to approach a table - you just look at the long table, pick the next logical available seat, and sit there. That's what everybody does, and there's no expectation that you have to ask to do that, because, what else would you do?

Maybe the long lunch table is why I look forward so much to lunch every day at Khan Academy. It's certainly not that I dislike my work, but I adore our lunches: I don't have to stress about where to sit, and I know that wherever I sit, I'll be surrounded by some subset of my smart and funny colleagues.

Here's to hoping that we can keep our lunch table long for as long as possible.

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