How does bad office kitchen etiquette affect the overall culture of a workplace?

How does bad office kitchen etiquette affect the overall culture of a workplace?
  • PublishedApril 3, 2024

Have you ever spent half of your lunch break vainly searching the office kitchen for a fork?

Maybe you have resorted to writing a passive-aggressive note reminding your fellow workers to wash their own coffee cups, or perhaps scoffed at a similar missive left by someone else.

But the cleanliness of an organisation’s communal kitchen and bathroom facilities is no laughing matter and as Libby Sander, an assistant professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond University on the Gold Coast/Yugambeh Country explains, it can be a good indicator of overall office culture.

“Going into the bathrooms and kitchen will clearly tell you, without spending a lot of money on engagement surveys, do people actually care about the workplace that they’re in?”

Dr Sander says most employees don’t deliberately set out to disregard their co-workers’ feelings, but a lack of consequences for inconsiderate etiquette can lead to it becoming entrenched behaviour.

“It might be ‘well, I didn’t wash my hands and I ate my lunch that time, so maybe it’s fine, I’m not going to get sick’; or, ‘I didn’t wash my coffee cup and somebody else washed it up for me, that was good, maybe I’ll just keep doing that’.”

And poor workplace etiquette not only has wide-ranging implications for overall office culture, it can also negatively affect the physical health and mental wellbeing of employees.

The culture shock of a dirty office kitchen

A dirty office kitchen not only makes the task of finding clean cutlery and coffee cups a frustrating endeavour, it also causes cognitive drain and productivity losses.

Maintaining a clean and hygienic shared kitchen is also an example of what’s referred to as a “non-promotable task“, and according to a 2018 Harvard Business School study, women are 48 per cent more likely to “volunteer” for these chores, which can further slow their career progression.

And if the same people are constantly picking up the slack for messy co-workers, Dr Sander says, “it’s going to lead to frustration and resentment, and maybe eventually going in and yelling at somebody, which is not the outcome that you want”.

“I’m sure we’ve all been in kitchens, where you’ve seen that people get so frustrated, they’ve actually put up a sign saying, ‘your mother doesn’t work here, please clean up after yourself’.”

So, who is responsible for cleaning the office kitchen?

The simple answer to who should be responsible for cleaning the office kitchen is the person who uses a cup, plate or utensil should wash it or place it in the dishwasher — and whoever created a mess should clean up after themselves.

“If you don’t want your colleagues to be talking about you, then take responsibility,” Dr Sander says.

One of the difficulties with maintaining a clean office kitchen is it’s an area where there are often no clear communications or workflows in place to determine who is responsible, but Dr Sander says it’s ultimately up to senior leaders to know what’s happening in their organisation.

“What are the consequences for not pitching in to help your colleagues or not actually doing your fair share of what’s expected?

“It is absolutely the responsibility of managers to have oversight on all of this and looking at what is actually working well, what’s not working well and what needs to change.”

The benefits of cleaning up our acts

Dr Sander points to findings from a 2002 Norwegian study into the effects of a controlled increase in cleaning quality, which found having a cleaner office resulted in a 12.5 per cent decrease in sick days, as well as reported increases in productivity.

“So, you will be less sick for a start … you won’t be so grumpy every time you go to the kitchen [if you’re not seeing] the sink full of dirty coffee cups and you can’t get a fork to eat your lunch. It just makes it a nicer place for everyone.”

And as national director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health Rachel Clements recently told the ABC, scheduling proper breaks gives workers a better sense of control and improves productivity and mental wellbeing — which is only one reason you should avoid eating at your desk, as Dr Sander explains.

“The typical office desk is home to over 10 million bacteria, which is 400 times more than a toilet seat,” she says.

“The biggest contributor to that, other than not washing your hands when you go to the bathroom, is eating at our desks.

“Taking an actual physical break going outside, getting some fresh air and sunshine, getting some exercise, interacting with other people or finding a quiet spot to sit by yourself is so important, so get away from the desk and don’t eat there.”


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