Research Design Connection: Workplace Water

Research lead by Thomas indicates that in-office drinking water can have an important effect on employees’ mental and physical health, as well as how they move through their workplace.

The team found that the office workers it interviewed “put considerable labor into developing and maintaining complex systems for making choices about what, how and where to eat while working. These systems…were then strained and frequently sabotaged by food that simply materialized in the workplace through catered meals and office ‘food altars.’…For many, the consumption of water offered a virtuous solution to the conundrum.” “Food altars” are areas where various foods, often unhealthy, are made available without charge to all. An example of a food altar might be a space near the office administrator’s seat where homemade cookies are artfully arranged on a serving plate or where candy jars are stocked.

The researchers found that “when asked about their food and drink choices over the last 24 hours…people directed us to the water cooler…For employees trapped in a culture of unpredictable abundance, seeking to exercise control…only the water bottle constitutes a purely virtuous choice…It [Water] also shaped people’s movement patterns in the office, taking them to a zone away from their desk frequently…Participants valued the act of getting up to get water as well as how drinking water supported them in avoiding certain foods.”

Carolyn Thomas, Jennifer Sedell, Charlotte Biltekoff, and Sara Schaefer. 2016. “Abundance, Control and Water! Water! Water!” Food, Culture, and Society, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 251-271.

Sally Augustin, PhD, a cognitive scientist, is the editor of Research Design Connections (, a monthly subscription newsletter and free daily blog, where recent and classic research in the social, design, and physical sciences that can inform designers’ work are presented in straightforward language. Readers learn about the latest research findings immediately, before they’re available elsewhere. Sally, who is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is also the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009) and, with Cindy Coleman, The Designer’s Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design (Wiley, 2012). She is a principal at Design With Science ( and can be reached at