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What's the recipe for a happy, engaged employee? A recent Gallup study found it has a lot to do with friendships and connections in the workplace. Those can be difficult to create when employees are always on their mobile devices, so many companies are trying to get their workforce to unplug.

Some organizations have sent their employees to Digital Detox. One company even organized an outing to Burning Man. (Yes, that's a thing.) Then there's the Boston office of PR firm Launchsquad, which decided to take a different tactic: weekly, device-free "family meals."

"We spend loads of time together at work, but it's hard to be present and meaningfully connect with others, yet it's closer connections as people that ultimately help everyone do their jobs better," says Boston-based Launchsquad partner Mike Farber.

Bring It to the Table

Since LaunchSquad opened an office in Boston in 2010, Farber has offered lunch to employees on Mondays. Typically, though, employees say it was more of a grab-and-go situation. Last year, Farber decided to change the format of Monday lunch when he realized his team wasn't enjoying the perk in the way it was intended—instead of bringing people together the lunch was, in effect, just pushing them apart. Everyone was heads down, eating at their desks.

"I figured why not sit down for lunch once a week and talk about life and big, important things that are happening at work," Farber says. "See if it helps foster some connections."

Farber's new rule for Mondays: everyone eat together, device free and have a discussion during the meal. Sounds old-school, but it worked.

"When I was growing up it was really important to my parents that we sit down and have family dinner together at least 4 or 5 times a week," says Shami Barooshian, account executive at LaunchSquad. "I never really understood why, but now it makes sense. You're just naturally closer with each other when you come together like that."

Offer a Safe Space for Human Connection

So what do they talk about? The conversation isn't just a free-for-all. Each week a nominated employee brings a topic to the table (literally) for everyone to discuss. Generally, the topics are less about actual work and more about personal development. Like, "What's the biggest mistake you've made in your career and how did you handle it," where higher level Vice Presidents get to share their screw-ups with fresh-out-of-college account associates. Following the Paris attacks, the topic of conversation centered around how each person found out about the incidents. But it also opened up a forum for people to speak about their emotions around a tough topic.

"It's rare to have such an open, safe forum where you can talk through something as emotional as that," says Christine Freschi, account executive at LaunchSquad. "And it wasn't just talking about the details of the attack, but going beyond that and analyzing the way the world responded."

Though the family lunches are just an hour out of the week, they're always attended and foster a sense of safety (and downtime) that permeates into the work the team does together each week. And, according to recent research, that's a really great way to keep employees engaged: A Cornell study found that employees are more productive if they eat meals together.

"We all spend too much time on screens," says Farber. "It's impossible to connect as humans when you're distracted by the barrage of information poring out of your favorite device. So we banned them from lunch. And it works. Folks are dialed into each other and their brains can re-set."

Photo: Shutterstock