Jan. 25, 2013— -- At Google's New York City offices, it's rumored you are never more than 150 feet from some kind of food.
The building sports a cafeteria with too many options to choose from, with scattered micro kitchens full of free food for employees, 24/7. Employees never had to leave the building for nourishment.
But with all this food goodness came unwanted pounds. And now, Google has put itself on a diet.
Like most everything in the search giant's office culture, the cafeteria was hyper-analyzed and re-engineered to be loaded with "nudges" intended to lead people towards healthier food choices. For example, research shows people tend to pile up on the first thing they see, so the salad bar was moved to a prime real estate spot by the front entrance.
"There are all these different color-coded signs here to let you know what's healthy," said Googler Ashley Moak, pointing out green tags that indicate low-calorie food, yellow tags for moderate-sized portions and red tags for pastas and desserts.
But it wasn't always this way. The healthy nudges began when Google employees started complaining that they were gaining weight. Joe Labombarda, the executive chef at Google's Manhattan office, said the unlimited food perk, which was originally designed to maximize productivity and loyalty, created an undesired side effect: People kept coming back for more -- and often.
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"Some people may gain 15 pounds when they start to work here," Labombarda said.
So plates and take-out containers were swapped out for smaller sizes to "nudge" smaller portions, further encouraged by a posted sign that read, "People who take big plates tend to eat more." Nobody wants to be seen with too much food on their plate or, heaven forbid, two containers full of food.
Desserts weren't taken away but moved to the far corner of the cafeteria. Here, servings can be consumed in three bites -- enough to satisfy a craving but not be a diet buster.
"Let them have that beautiful but delicious dessert, but not gorge on it," Labombarda said.
According to the search giant, the 3,000 employees who work at the Manhattan office consume 124,500 pounds of berries, 348,600 pounds of protein and 224,200 shots of espresso annually.
Jennifer Kurkoski , who heads a department at Google called people analytics, crunched the numbers on employee eating habits and overhauled how food was presented around the building.
"We're busy," Kurkoski said. "Everyone has work that they are trying to get done, and so you don't want to think a lot about what they are going to grab as a snack. So let's make the thing that people default to the healthiest one possible."
She orchestrated experiments to subtly change how employees ate at the office. A big one involved moving M&Ms from the "gravity bin" dispensers into opaque jars. With the candy "hidden" employees had to go hunting for them.
"We found that when we moved the M&Ms from those gravity bins to these containers -- didn't take them away, everything's still there -- in seven weeks, New York Googlers consumed 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms," Kukoski said.
In fact, Kurkoski added, during the experiment, the proportion of total calories the employees consumed from candy dropped 9 percent, from 29 to 20 percent, and the proportion of total fat consumed from candy dropped 11 percent, from 26 percent to 15 percent.
"People like to know their numbers at Google," Kurkoski said. "We're a bit of a data-driven company."
The drink section also went under behavior modification. In the coolers, water bottles were moved to eye level and the sodas sent down to the bottom shelf.
"We put all the water bottles up and we found that Googlers consumed 47 percent more water when the bottles were right there and they could just grab it," Kurkoski said.
Other employees weren't drinking water because they thought it would take too long to fill up their glass. So when word got around you could fill a glass up with water in 7 seconds, consumption increased.
Googler Sofia Buschman said she gained more than the Google 15 when she starting working there.
"At that point, the candy was very alluring and free-flowing, literally free-flowing," she said. "We had these pull-down machines. They were dangerous but fun."
Now, like most Googlers, Buschman said she is grateful for the nudges. She said once they moved the junk food, she found that she ate less of it.
"I think everybody really enjoys natural, healthy food, we're just too busy and we grab whatever is in front of us," she said.
Despite the food experiments and structured eating environment, Buschman said she didn't feel manipulated by the cafeteria overhaul and that she has slimmed down.
"I'm being encouraged to be healthy," she said. "If anything, I'm grateful that a company that essentially needs me to do productive work to help them build their business actually cares to help me be a healthier individual. I can't complain. Anybody who does is, perhaps, misguided."