Disappearing office supplies

I often wondered why items disappear from shared spaces, such as pens from the reception desk or coffee mugs from the lunchroom. I read about a group of epidemiologists from Australia who published the results of a study in the British Medical Journal documenting the disappearance of teaspoons from their lunchrooms. They purchased both high and low quality teaspoons and distributed them throughout the lunchrooms of their research centre. They examined teaspoon disappearance in common lunchrooms and private lunchrooms.

They found in private lunchrooms half the teaspoons had permanently disappeared in 11 weeks. However, from communal lunchrooms, it took only 6 weeks for half of the teaspoons to disappear. The researchers concluded that in order to keep their employees satisfied with the amount of teaspoons available, the research centre should purchase over 250 teaspoons per year.

I found this study interesting from an organizing perspective because it indicated items disappear faster when left in a common area where more people who have access to them. This is a problem in office settings as time is wasted looking for items and money is wasted in purchasing extra supplies. In a home setting, items are more likely to be picked up and moved by someone else in your home when left out in a common area instead of being properly stored after use. Organizing and simplifying procedures can minimize loss and misplacement of items.

Suggestions for change:

In an office setting, educate co-workers as to what is happening. Let them know how much the missing items affect the bottom line of the business. Spending a hundred dollars on replacing teaspoons means less money for other things. Encourage co-workers to bring their own personal items such as coffee mugs, water bottles, and teaspoons to use at work instead of stealing from the cafeteria or lunchroom.

Ensure people have the supplies they need. At work, each employee should be issued with a standard set of office supplies as necessary (e.g. stapler, tape dispenser, scissors, hole punch). Also, review common areas to determine what shared items are needed in these work spaces. At home, if your children are in school, they will need their own supplies for their desks instead of needing to take them from the kitchen or from your home desk.

Purchase specialized items for common areas to make them obviously shared items. For example, coffee mugs in the office lunchroom could all be exactly the same size and colour and have the company logo printed on them. The stapler and hole-punch at the photocopier could be bright red and labeled with a gold permanent marker. In your home, you might decide to get supplies for each person/area in specific colors (red for son, green for daughter, purple for mom, brown for dad, black for the kitchen, and yellow for the craft room). If you don’t wish to share an item with a roommate/family member, be sure to put it away after use to reduce the risk it will be picked up by someone else.

Some larger companies are using vending machines to dispense tools and supplies. Employees type in their employee ID code or swipe their pass-cards on the vending machine. This is an ideal solution for companies who cannot afford a full-time stock controller. It also allows management to track employees to find those who routinely misplace, hoard, or even steal tools or other supplies. It may not work with all offices, though, and certainly wouldn’t work well in a home.

While all the systems listed above may work, nothing beats a system where the items have a designated area and people are educated on the importance of returning items to where they belong. At home, a simple walk through the house each night before bed to relocate out-of-place items can also help to return items to their proper storage space so they don’t “get legs” and disappear for long periods of time.

15 Comments for “Disappearing office supplies”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    One of the very first companies I worked for (was very small), the owner had a tendency to pick up pens from anywhere as he was always writing things down. Those pens would always end up in his pocket and eventually home to the top of his dresser (or often behind it). A couple times a year, his wife would bring in a grocery bag filled with pens and return them to the office supplies. One of our IT guys got sick of always losing his pens to him so he started chewing on the end of it (pencils too). Bit passive aggressive, but it did the trick and for some reason, the owner never touched his pens.

    I’ve worked for companies (large and small) that had a designated office supply person. When you first started working there, you were issued a trashcan, stapler, one box of staples, certain number of pens, paperclips, etc. When you ran out, you had to ask/submit a requisition and it was noted in an inventory file. At one company, that person was me and I really disliked that job. I felt like a mother hen dictating what people could/could not use. Need a clipboard? I’m sorry, that’s not on the list of acceptable supplies, let me see if the office manager will allow you to have one. Eeesh.

  2. posted by erica on

    At one large office where I worked, stuff walked out of my cubicle every night. That was completely ridiculous and unacceptable as I was the one who maintained our fully stocked supply room. I knew that everything walking off my desk was available to anyone who needed it. I borrowed a coworkers label maker and put my name or initials on everything that had walked off my desk in the past and, miraculously, nothing ever walked off my desk again.

    In other offices, I’ve found that simply putting things out of sight keeps them in my possession as folks are generally reluctant to rifle through someone else’s drawers. Or maybe it’s that fact that I keep a box of tampons right at the front of my top drawer so it’s the first thing anyone sees when they open it.

  3. posted by Deborah Goodman on

    Tampons…what a great idea! How about a small box of disposable douches or pads, while you’re at it? That’ll definitely keep the guys out, as they don’t want to think about feminine hygiene, and certainly don’t want to see the products. 🙂

  4. posted by Laugan on

    I used to be in a childcare situation that was a bit like a playgroup in the fact that the parents stay with their kids. We had a huge issue with wandering teaspoons, so much that a fresh dozen would be gone by the end of the week. Eventually I used my trusty dremel and engraving bit to engrave the centres initials on them. They still go home from time to time but 2 years on they all come back and we haven’t permanently lost any

  5. posted by Scott on

    Sounds like too much effort to tackle the problem of $100 worth of lost spoons per year.

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Scott — If only it were just spoons. It happens to hundreds of things at companies … thousands upon thousands of dollars per employer. I read a paper in a business course in college about the estimated cost of stolen toilet paper per major corporation each year. Whatever the amount was, it shocked me back then. Can’t find it now.

  7. posted by Verity on

    This was a great article. I think that it Touched on an even bigger issue. When something is ‘everybody’s,’ nobody takes responsibility for it.

    In an in home situation, I ran into this conscript with my children’s toybox. I have four children who are five and under. I thought that one big box would be the easiest way to clean up toys. No sorting. Just throwing into the box. Everybody’s responsibility. Everybody would help.

    Surprisingly, cleanup became much easier when I got rid of the communal box. Each child has their own box of 10 to 20 toys that they personally keep track of.

    It has encouraged personal responsibility to clean up their toys, treat them nicely, and help each other.

  8. posted by Marie on

    Somewhat related: I’ve worked in multiple restaurants with disappearing silverware, mostly due to lazy or incompetent busboys. The replacement cost gets to be ridiculous. I’ve suggested keeping exact inventory of utensils and taking the price out of their paychecks, but everyone acts like I’m being unreasonable. I don’t see why. If your job is wash stuff, and you throw it away instead, then you should replace it.

  9. posted by Haila on

    We have a “no questions asked” basket and trash can in our employee locker room to encourage us to empty our pockets, purses, briefcases, before leaving work. The contents of the basket are then wiped down or washed as needed and returned to wherever they belong. This has cut costs considerably.

  10. posted by Shanna on

    This reminds me of when I was in college and at the end of the school year there would be a box placed at the entrance to the dorm cafeteria with a sign on it saying “We will store your dishes over the summer, for free!” Strangely, it wasn’t the teaspoons that tended to disappear. It was forks that were scarce by the end of the school year.

  11. posted by Harry on

    All my pens were disappearing one year in college. No roommate so it wasn’t that. I put masking tape on my pens to see what happened. The results were astounding: within 2-3 weeks all my friends had put tape on their pens, too! (We had a good laugh over it, because none of us realized how often we’d borrow a pen and forget to put it down.)

    I remember this study. The difference between small-group breakrooms and large-group ones is the sense of communal feeling. Therefore another way to tackle the problem is to increase group feeling; it’s easier to take from the anonymous “them” than it is from “my coworkers Tom, Jane, or Sasha.”

    It’s not perfect – a certain former cow-irker of mine treated the lunchroom fridge as if it were his own – but the communal feeling helps.

  12. posted by Carla on

    On the first day of my honeymoon, my husband and I went to a dimly lit chocolate bar for dinner. At some point in the evening, I accidentally knocked my spoon off the table – and then couldn’t find it! I tried to surreptitiously look around the floor and in my purse… no spoon. I finally gave up, we paid our bill, and left. We got back to our room, and lo and behold, the spoon was in my purse. My husband insisted on taking me back and making me go in to return the spoon, while laughing hysterically. Boy, did they give me a weird look when I handed back the spoon. So embarrassed, but at least I wasn’t contributing to the “missing spoon” problem!!

  13. posted by Rosemary on

    I read the article. It’s hilarious! I love it when nerds use their skills to tackle day to day annoyances.

  14. posted by Melanie on

    I’m with Erica. Simply keep your tools and supplies in your drawers or under your desk and nobody will have access to them or walk away with them. It also gives you much more room on your desk to work on project and looks neater.

  15. posted by Shanna on

    Some very clever person at my neighborhood post office has used florist’s tape to attach giant silk flowers to the ends of all the pens. No one is going to accidentally walk away with one of those (though there have been a few small children pitching fits because they want to take one home). There’s always a flower-bedecked pen there when you need one, and it’s funny to see a serious-looking business person filling out a form with a giant flower. I bet something similar would work in an office, especially in an area with communal use of pens, like a mailroom or copy room, or to keep your co-workers from wandering off with things.

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