Who stole all the forks? The science of missing office cutlery
It happened again recently.
I made my way to the kitchen, opened the cutlery drawer, and ... nothing.
No forks, no spoons, no teaspoons. Once again, I ate my salad with a soup spoon - which was retrieved dirty from the dishwasher. (Yes, I washed it.)
Meanwhile, a colleague consumed a pie using nothing but a knife.
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This has been an ongoing problem in the Fairfax Media Auckland newsroom, in what has become known as "The Great Cutlery Crisis of 2017".
It hasn't always been this way. When we moved into our new Ponsonby premises in October the kitchen drawers were replete with forks. Many, many forks.
However since then they have disappeared at a rate of knots, leading to frustrating experiences like those described above.
This issue did not appear to be unique to Fairfax.
Initial enquiries established that most other offices were afflicted, including universities, corporates, and government departments.
There have even been books written on the subject.
Case of the Missing Cutlery: A Leadership Course for the Rising Star detailed the story of Kevin Allen, a young manager at an airline catering facility who set out to find "why silverware was disappearing at a rapid clip".
Allen recounted what the manager of Eastern Airlines had to say one summer afternoon.
"We're losing our cutlery... by the thousands. It's costing us a fortune as well as delaying flights by the score.
"You need to get to the bottom of this and quick."
I don't think I've ever worked in an office that didn't run short of cutlery.
At my previous job, I emailed the human resources manager to ask whether we could have more forks.
Her reply was short and sweet.
"When level 3 opened it was stocked with $2000 worth of kitchen supplies (including cutlery)," she wrote.
"The cutlery has subsequently gone missing, and sadly because cutlery appears to be highly mobile we just can't afford to keep replenishing with the good stuff."
Queries to the Fairfax building facilities manager revealed similar frustrations.
She asked not to be quoted on the record, but confirmed the newsroom forks had been replenished three times since October.
Fairfax communications executive Alex Maplesden helpfully agreed to go digging for numbers after I bailed him up at Friday night drinks.
"Not sure how serious you were about this," began his email the following week, "but I've tracked down some stats from a month or so ago."
Those statistics revealed an official count of 26 forks and 19 teaspoons, shared between up to 400 staff members.
And it wasn't just cutlery going missing.
The numbers also showed that 200 signwritten mugs were ordered in October. Since then 20 had been sent to another office, and there were only 82 left.
You do the math.
As Kiwis, we burn through an astounding amount of cutlery.
Rod Duke, managing director of Briscoe Group, said his team sold nearly half a million forks every year.
"We sell a bloody bucket load," he said.
Bear in mind that Briscoe Group is just one of the many major retailers supplying our annual cutlery cravings.
THE ACADEMIC RESEARCH
Further investigations revealed there had been actual academic research on the issue of missing cutlery.
In 2005, Melbourne's Burnet Institute published a paper titled The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute.
Researcher Megan Lim still works at the institute, and was happy to chat once I tracked her down.
She explained the project came about following accusations of cutlery theft between different research groups.
"We didn't want to make unfounded accusations," she said. "We wanted to have evidence, so we decided to actually experiment and do some tracking."
Lim and her colleagues purchased 70 new teaspoons and marked numbers on them so they could keep tabs on their movements.
"Then every week I went round the building searching all the kitchens and public areas to see if I could spy any teaspoons," she said.
The results were startling.
"Eighty per cent of the spoons went missing over five months," Lim said.
"A lot of them seemed to disappear without a trace really."
That rate of loss meant that 252 teaspoons would need to be purchased each year to maintain a steady collection of 70 teaspoons in the kitchen.
Based on those figures, the researchers estimated an astonishing 18 million teaspoons were going missing in Melbourne each year.
Those spoons laid end to end would stretch the length of the entire coastline of Mozambique.
More than a decade later, only one of the original teaspoons from the study has survived.
It was framed and takes pride of place on the wall at Burnet Institute, honoured as "The Last of 'The Spoons' on the Ground Floor".
The study concluded it was possible teaspoons were escaping to a world inhabited entirely by spoon life-forms.
"Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle… generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life."
Lim agreed the teaspoon findings were likely applicable to other forms of cutlery.
"People keep asking me to do a follow-up study on forks, but I'm holding out to get some research funding for that," she said.
WHERE DO THEY GO?
Alternative realities aside, office thieves are the most likely culprits behind missing cutlery.
In an anonymous survey following the Burnet Institute research, 38 per cent of respondents admitted they had stolen cutlery.
Most of those had swiped their ill-gotten gains from work.
My friends echoed this laissez-faire approach to cutlery theft when I put out a call on Facebook.
"I took a fork home in my plastic container the other night," said one.
"My ex used to steal cutlery and bring it home with his lunch dishes," added another.
My sleuthing eventually paid off.
A self-professed cutlery thief agreed to be interviewed, on the condition she remained anonymous.
She admitted she often took forks home from work.
"It's a mixture of forgetfulness, laziness, and getting a little thrill out of stealing them, I guess," she said.
"But I do bring them back eventually."
She added it was a long walk from her desk back to the kitchen to return cutlery, and said most of the time she couldn't be bothered.
That last point was echoed by analysis from the London Borough of Hounslow in 2014, after its on-site cafe was forced to fork out repeatedly for replacement cutlery.
"Clearly people weren't actually stealing cutlery, it was simply easier for them to keep hold of the cutlery than return it," wrote the borough's Chris Norfield.
He added that returning cutlery was "far too much effort for no immediate or personal reward".
FINDING A CUTLERY SOLUTION
The Fairfax building facilities manager in Auckland has become increasingly stern in her attempts to staunch our cutlery losses.
First, she tried humour.
"MISSING," proclaimed a poster in the kitchen.
"Have you seen these forks? Hand in your forks and any other cutlery quickly and anonymously. Please place in the nearest cutlery drawer (if clean) or into one of the dishwashers which will wipe fingerprints."
Nobody took any notice. The next poster took a sterner approach.
It warned: "ALL CUTLERY IS TO REMAIN IN THE KITCHEN AREA.
"If you need cutlery to eat your meal then you must eat it in the kitchen area."
The London Borough of Hounslow likewise struggled to persuade errant staff to return their cutlery.
Norfield said initial pleas fell on deaf ears, "in fact there was a suspicion that it got even worse. Making it seem like everyone was doing it made it seem normal".
Next, the cafe proposed an amnesty in which it promised to donate one pound for every dozen pieces of cutlery returned.
Twelve pieces of cutlery came back.
Determined to find a solution, the team then set about analysing the situation using "behavioural insight led frameworks".
The result was cutlery collection boxes in communal areas that allowed staff to drop off cutlery without having to walk all the way to the kitchen.
"The impact was instantaneous," said Norfield.
"The boxes on each floor filled up quickly and the cafe staff emptied them each week."
Hundreds of pieces of cutlery flowed in each month, which Norfield estimated would save the cafe around NZ$1000 annually.
Other offices have installed metal detectors on rubbish bins that sound an alarm if cutlery gets dropped in the trash by mistake.
Wellington-based BusinessDesk trialled another solution after struggling with the issue.
Co-founder Pattrick Smellie said "cutlery wars" broke out when the business news publisher moved into new offices.
"The people next door suspected we were making off with their cutlery, and made unannounced raids on the cutlery drawer in our office, which got a bit over the top," he said.
Smellie resorted to extreme measures when purchasing replacement cutlery.
"I bought a full new set of knives, forks and spoons and then spent more than twice as much again having each one of them engraved with the word 'stolen' in the hope that this would shame people into returning it," he said.
The initiative paid off, with much of the stolen-branded cutlery still in place a year later.
"On a cost-benefit analysis, spending more than twice as much on the engraving as I spent on the original cutlery probably still paid for itself," said Smellie, "as the cutlery went missing at a much slower rate."
Back at Fairfax, Maplesden said there were ongoing discussions about whether newsroom cutlery should be replaced for the fourth time in six months.
He added that management was open to recommendations.
In the meantime, The Great Cutlery Crisis of 2017 continues.