It is the most sacrosanct of rituals: the office lunch. Heads bow in the breakout zone, bread is invariably broken (once slathered in your most fanciable condiment), vinegar is drizzled contemplatively upon a leafy salad. Pulses — when they’re not being added to the salad — quicken. This, of course, is your one and only mandated moment of rest and reflection during a trying working day. Bliss… then a microwave starts beeping for 40 seconds straight, and all hell breaks loose.
Forget pistols at dawn, it’s utensils at lunchtime if and when proper etiquette is not observed during this sacred hour (although which ones? Wooden? Plastic? Wool?). Into this already fraught political environment now comes a new mandate. The Vegan Society has issued advice to employers about how to look after vegans among their staff after a judge ruled that they were protected in the workplace by law — including a dedicated shelf in the fridge with colour-coded equipment and separate areas to prepare their food. As with any annexation, trouble’s brewing. For the lunch hour is already a delicate ecosystem, where the rules are hard to read but easy to cross.
Witness the “IMPORTANT: OFFICE ALL” round robin sent when an unsuspecting employee (“I won’t name him this time”) microwaves a particularly pungent mackerel, or the stern words from office security about the Uber Eats couriers from McDonald’s queuing round the block “for miles” every Friday. Woe betide anyone, frankly, who doesn’t wash their hands the full 60 seconds before and after touching shared resources, coronavirus or no coronavirus (although granted, we’re all more germaphobic than ever). This is a handy rulebook, perhaps to cut out and keep on the office fridge?
Vegans: coming over here, taking our shelves. Let’s face it, you either accept and adapt, or find yourself becoming a lonely, bitter dissenter (not a good look). There are about 600,000 vegans in Britain, four times the number there were in 2014. For years, they’ve made do while you’ve waved barbecue lamb ribs in their faces and made fun of their ethical-brand trainers, while sneakily pinching their oat milk for your morning coffee (it’s delicious). So the etiquette guide here is largely straightforward: don’t do any of that (at least ask about the oat milk, and replace it once in a while). Also, dispose of the plated chicken carcass oozing on the top shelf of the fridge, lest people begin to suspect you’ve upset a major Italian crime family. Keep the grumbling schtum about the “good old days” when your pâté could have its run of the fridge (“any shelf”) to a minimum.
Microwaves have begat a well-chronicled litany of social crimes. These include: removing other people’s food from the microwave to substitute your own (rude); lingering at the door and blocking off the rest of the small kitchen (thoughtless); cooking fish (brave); cooking food uncovered (gross). In the face of this, standard advice is obvious: keep cooking time minimal, clean up the microwave after you’ve finished using it, and reset the microwave so the next guy isn’t fiddling around with knobs and wasting your PLT (Precious Lunch Time). But banning smelly food is wrong. We are pro-smells, assuming they are excellent ones — besides, banning smelly food feels very much like a euphemism for repressing non-white cultures and cuisines. Ignore the joyless jobsworths (except, you know, checking about people’s allergies) and celebrate good scents. The show-off rule applies: if your lunch is something others will envy, by all means go nuts. Dress that salad to impress.
Hot (food) desking
Yes, you’re time-pressed. We get it. We’ve tried to invite you out for three people’s birthday lunches, four leaving dos and one team pub sesh. We’ve all seen your “World’s Hardest Worker” mug. But just because you’re not at a table doesn’t mean table manners don’t apply. Don’t talk with your mouth full (a 15-minute moratorium on business calls, please, there’s sandwich flying everywhere). Don’t make a mess. If you’re a hot desker, cleanliness is even more important: sanitise and scrub down the surfaces. Fruit and non-fragrant snacks are good. Your peers are your jury. And seriously, why be an island? The humble canteen has been revitalised in recent years, another trickle-down trend inspired by Silicon Valley start-ups (Google has more than 1,450 micro-kitchens at its offices worldwide). UBS, the asset manager, even has its own cookery school. The Al Desko monoluncher misses all this. So another do: get out more.
That sinking feeling
“It’s actually better for the planet to use the dishwasher than clean everything by hand,” you say, putting your dirty plate to the side and edging away from the fully-loaded, clean office dishwasher. No, don’t just turn it on again. Empty it. Do not become one of those people who leaves plates all over their desk, do not leave your spoon, do not chuck coffee grounds down the sink. A lifetime ban for anyone who says “the cleaners will do it”. Helpfully, this is where Tupperware and your single-use armada of cutlery make you a far better force for self-containment and cleanliness. You can always bring it home.
Passive aggressive notes: often useful, occasionally offensive (ban), frequently funny. Look, a little literature at lunchtime is, if nothing else, a great screen break. Let’s face it, scribbling “Not Debbie’s” on relevant material (even if it’s most of it) is a helpful pointer if your name is Debbie. Serial milk stealers and those with a habit of making a mess in communal areas must be brought to justice. But you’re not Batman. Vigilante note-writing is subject to blowback: you’d rather be hungry than sitting in a HR hearing in front of Debbie’s lawyer.