As with any communal space, office kitchens are replete with their own particular problems. There are always dirty coffee mugs in the sink, directly under the “please wash your dishes” sign. Lunches get stolen from the fridge, no matter how carefully—or passive-aggressively—they’re labeled. And inevitably, at some point, all the spoons will disappear.
That last part is pure scientific fact. The phenomenon of the missing office spoons once proved so consternating to a group of Australian public health researchers, in fact, that they conducted a whole study on it.
Included in 2005 in the British Medical Journal's annual Christmas issue—which publishes research on quirky topics like neck injuries in heavy metal musicians and the hypothesized walking speed of the Grim Reaper—the months-long study tracked the rapid loss of spoons in communal office kitchens at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne.
It began in early 2004, when the researchers discovered that their office tearoom (what Americans would call a break room) was completely devoid of the spoons necessary to measure out instant coffee and sugar. So they bought new spoons. Within a few months, those, too, had disappeared, never to be seen or stirred again.
To get to the bottom of the mystery of the vanishing utensils, they methodically put out 70 “discreetly numbered teaspoons” (i.e. labeled with red nail polish) in the eight communal break rooms around the institute, returning weekly to count how many spoons were left. Some of spoons were stainless steel while others were of a "higher quality," allowing the researchers to determine whether people would be more likely to walk off with a nicer spoon rather than run-of-the-mill silverware.
Office spoons, the researchers found, have a half-life of just 81 days. By that point in the experiment, half of the new spoons had permanently vanished. After five months, a full 80 percent of the spoons had disappeared. It didn’t matter whether the spoons were high-quality or average, though spoons placed in rooms that were used by more people at the institute disappeared faster than spoons in break rooms linked to specific programs.
When the researchers revealed their study to the rest of the colleagues, a select few spoon-hoarders came forward to return their utensils. But in total, only five of the 56 missing teaspoons were recovered. “Four of these were returned from areas far removed from their place of last observation; one had been missing for 20 weeks,” the researchers write. “No one admitted to the permanent removal of a teaspoon from the institute, and no plausible explanations were advanced for the high rate of teaspoon loss.” At this rate, they calculated, the institute would need to buy at least 252 teaspoons every year to maintain a workable ratio of one spoon to every two employees.
Their final conclusion? Employers need to buy more spoons, or their whole organization might fall apart. “The loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid,” they write, “showing that their availability, and hence office culture in general, is constantly threatened.” Without sufficient numbers of spoons, employees will quickly become dissatisfied with their workplace. They’ll have to waste precious company time tracking down something to measure out coffee and sugar—forks, knives, even staplers.
We don’t say this about most studies, but the paper is well worth reading in its entirety.