Kitchens in homes have evolved throughout the years from a place to make food to a social hub. Turns out, the office kitchen might be on a similar path.

When interior designer Heather Greene began working with corporate clients more than 16 years ago, kitchens were afterthoughts. In fact, they weren’t even kitchens.

“It was a breakroom, and it was in the basement,” says Greene, director of workplace and interiors at global design firm Stantec. “There were Fortune 500 companies I worked with that had a room in the basement with laminate floors that were meant for just cooking your food in the microwave. They were most concerned with controlling smell.”

Stantec doesn’t even design break rooms anymore. And kitchens have moved up from the basement to front and center in increasingly more corporate offices.

Just as kitchens in homes moved from lonely, walled-off spaces in the back of the house to the convivial anchors of entire first floors, so too have office kitchens evolved. And just as home kitchens no longer are reserved just for cooking — instead, they are social hubs — office kitchens, too, have moved far beyond microwave-and-coffee zones. Instead, companies view kitchens as engines of collaborative spirit and places for boosted employee camaraderie.

“We believe innovation is not fostered in a conference room,” says Greene. “The kitchen is a place to recharge your batteries. It’s also about vulnerability. You get to know people in a more real way hanging out in the kitchen. The more collision people have, the stronger the bonds.”

Kitchens take place of conference rooms

Kitchens have become so important that large offices scatter them throughout the campus, as well as things like “neighborhood cafes,” which are sort of like coffee shops with bar seating and snacks. Meetings take place in banquettes. People who have never met start talking while seated at long community tables. 

Stantec Arlington VA

Stantec’s Arlington, VA office kitchen invites lingering and collaboration.

Greene said some of her proudest moments revolve around kitchens. After Stantec redesigns an office, the company returns for evaluations about how the new space changed office dynamics. One common result: conference room use declines because kitchens end up serving as spaces for meetings that never really were meant for conference rooms. But prior to the addition of more central and functional kitchens, conference rooms were the only option.

The office kitchen is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Three floors of a downtown building with 300 ad-agency employees require a different kitchen approach from a 100-person law firm in a one-story suburban office center. But at least two things tend to guide Stantec’s approach to office kitchen design. For one, daylight matters. If inviting daylight into a kitchen space is possible, Greene makes it happen. In addition, she prefers kitchens in high-traffic areas, office zones where privacy and head-down work are not essential.

“We create spaces that are active and engaged all day long, as opposed to just between 11 and 1,” she says. “I want to drive people together, to create these natural collisions. We want laughter. Noise is good.”

Kitchens are investments, not just perks

Kitchens-as-hubs cost more than breakrooms. And as companies increasingly sprinkle food-oriented spaces throughout office spaces, the expenses begin to matter. But Syntec and its corporate clients don’t look at kitchens as pure amenities with little in the way of return. Instead, they view them as investments.

It all began with Google, says Greene. Early on, the company understood that if they could keep employees in the workplace all day, they could squeeze more out of a 40-hour work week than otherwise. The reasoning was all about optimizing employee time — also known as boosting the bottom line and productivity. But the route to get there was nothing like what happens on many factory floors, where everything revolves simply around keeping workers in place performing tasks for as long as possible.

Eighty percent of corporate expenditures are salary and benefits. Companies now are asking, what happens if we optimize that 80 percent of our spend? How do we make that investment successful?

“How do you measure human performance?” asks Greene. “Companies aren’t asking employees to count widgets. They want employees to come up with the next Uber. Amenities like thoughtful kitchens not only improve employee satisfaction, they actually foster innovation among employees.”

No longer are office kitchens afterthoughts. Instead, companies have embraced the dynamic that elevated home kitchens from mere spaces for productivity to social hubs. People relax more in kitchen settings and communicate more openly. In the case of offices, the environments lead to more effective collaboration and stronger camaraderie.