The “Tech 15”: Tech Workers Struggle with Weight Gain in Free-Everything Environment

The countdown was on with just weeks until Jessica Ayala’s big day, but she had one problem: the snacks at work.

“I would say I gained about five pounds since joining NerdWallet,” said the public relations specialist.

The company, now in its sixth year, has grown to more than 150 employees. The staffing isn’t the only thing that has expanded: so has the selection of free offerings, from catered lunches to the myriad of snack choices that line the walls of the Market Street office in downtown San Francisco.

“It was really hard because I was months away from getting married. I had my dress already custom-made,” Ayala recalled, laughing. “So there were a lot of choices, hard choices, I had to make.”

Perhaps it doesn’t sound like a real problem, but the balance of trying not to gain weight at a new company has become a bit of a pain for some employees, especially in the tech world. Some have conjured memories of “Freshman 15,” now dubbed “Tech 15.”

Ayala was at NerdWallet when it employed a handful of people. She remembers the first generation of snacks, mostly comprising potato chips and Gatorade. Her CEO, Tim Chen, also remembers his first food choices.

“I think it was when we hit 20 to 30 people, we said, ‘Hey, let’s bring in some exercise classes and snacks in the kitchen,’” Chen said. “I still remember it started off with Costco.”

From Oreos to organic kale chips, chocolate to natural dried fruit, there is an abundance of choices at NerdWallet where lunch is also catered every weekday. Adjacent to the massive open-seating dining room is the company’s brand new bar that boasts an impressive selection of alcohol, as well as beer on tap.

“I think it’s overwhelming. At first you’re like I want to take advantage of everything. We have happy hours on Fridays,” said Taylor Bernal, the social media lead. “We have all these craft cocktails. Our signature cocktail is the ‘Nerd-fashioned’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’”

These “nerds,” as they refer to themselves, said they soon discovered a discipline they didn’t initially realize they had to have.

“I think especially new grads are more prone to weight gain in this environment,” Chen noted.

In the South of Market neighborhood, employees at Tradeshift wait for a bell to get in line for their free, catered lunch. Arrikka Hunter, the office manager at the invoicing platform, is in charge of ringing the lunch bell.

She is also in charge of ordering snacks and the set-up of the meal area. It’s no accident the salad bar is the first thing employees hit.

“So most people will fill up plates by the time they get to other offerings. There’s not much room left to put too much of anything else,” said Hunter.

Even the dishware was thought out.

“You could get ten-inch plates. I didn’t get those,” Hunter added. “We got eight-and-a-half-inch plates so there’s less space for you to fill up.”

For Brad Maloy, who came from the traditional corporate background, the free food, drinks and snacks took some time to get used to.

“It was more of a bring lunch or go out to lunch situation,” described Maloy. “There will definitely be treats here and they’re not the most healthy option, but for the most part there’s fruit and granola bars.”

Varying degrees of free offerings have become fairly standard at many tech startups, including Mountain View-based “Addepar.” The financial tech company hosts breakfast options, and even grows and harvests its own fruits and vegetables.

“At Addepar, we don’t simply just throw random food on a table three times a day and hope for the best,” said Ben Friedland, a company spokesman, in an email. “It takes a significant and coordinated effort, often with several weeks’ worth of advanced planning and menu maneuvering.”

He added that the company’s survey results “repeatedly show overall satisfaction in the 80-percent range.”

Over at Zynga, the social games network in San Francisco, there’s a movement to generate healthful recipes, playing off of the name of one of the company’s most popular games. According to Erin Smith, a company spokesperson, the company’s culinary team created the digital recipe book, “Farmville to Table.”

These free perks don’t end with seemingly endless food options. These tech companies also offer free fitness classes to encourage an overall healthful lifestyle.

For instance, both NerdWallet and Tradeshift offer boot camp and yoga courses.

“We have fully subsidized health, medical, all that stuff,” said Chen, who noted that he has lost roughly 15 pounds since leaving his career in Wall Street. “It’s quite a mindset shift from my days in finance when it was all about hours and the number of Excel spreadsheets you cranked out. We’re really in a more creative role now where we’re redefining a new space.”

Hunter added that employees have turned to creative methods to burn calories and simultaneously have fun.

“You’re constantly working, yeah, you gain weight but at any point there’s an impromptu Nerf gun war, there’s a ping pong table, foosball, yoga. There’s all kind of things,” she said.

Ultimately, according to Chen, it’s not about trying to lure employees to spend more time in the office. It’s how the free meals and snacks lend to fostering relationships among employees, especially those who may not typically interact on a regular basis.

“With lunch, you can either provide a great, nutritional lunch or have everyone leave for an hour a day and not get to meet each other,” said Chen. “We’re such a cross-functional company. Just having people sit together and get to know each other is more valuable than an extra hour a day.”

Bernal agreed.

“It has become a lifestyle and people that work here, they live and breathe NerdWallet,” she said. “We’re always really excited to hang out with each other, it’s kind of crazy!”

Inevitably, they said, there’s a sort of Darwinian realization: better dietary input, better work output.

The culture of free-everything has not escaped the attention of one regulatory agency: the Internal Revenue Service. On its most recent list of top tax priorities released on January 29, under “Employee Benefits,” one bullet point reads “guidance regarding employer-provided meals.”

The question now is whether these free perks are taxable, in particular for the larger companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, which were all early adopters providing free meals.

The IRS rulebook hosts an entire section devoted to meals. Under “De Minimis Meals,” it states that employers can usually exclude meal or meal money if it has insignificant value, including coffee, doughnuts, soft drinks, as well as occasional parties or picnics.

The IRS would not comment on whether it will launch any imminent crackdown in this area.

Even if it did, at least one CEO says there will be no impact to his free food and drinks policy.

“The benefits you get from employees getting to know each other from different teams far outweighs an extra corporate tax on free food,” said Chen. “I doubt that will influence anyone.”

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