Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
As a workplace advice columnist, my mail changed dramatically during the first few years of the pandemic. With so many people working from home rather than in offices, I received far fewer letters about the daily annoyances of being around other people: the co-worker who takes all his calls on speakerphone, the colleague who shows up at your desk to ask if you got the email she just sent a minute ago, the constant battles for control over the thermostat. One of the most notable absences: complaints about office kitchen behavior. The folder in my inbox for kitchen aggravations has been sitting mostly empty since 2020.
Until now. Workplace kitchen wars are back! With many companies bringing people back to the office at least part time, office kitchens are once again aggravating many workers—the takeout food from months ago left rotting in the fridge, the politics of who gets stuck cleaning up after others (and who doesn’t), and the brazen thefts of other people’s food have all returned with a vengeance.
In fact, COVID itself offered a special indignity to returning office workers. Many employees sent home in March 2020 were assured that they would be back in their offices within a couple of weeks, so a lot of food got left behind, presenting some gruesome discoveries when workers returned to the premises months or even years later:
When we went on lockdown in 2020, people didn’t really think we’d be working from home for so long. When I was finally allowed back in summer 2021, nobody had been in to clean out the fridge we had (which got turned off when they shut the power off because nobody was using it). Everything was in containers, which was fine, but I had to take pictures of the containers because people wanted them back—with like, disgusting black slime and mold cultures in them. There was a hint of “oh, can you wash them out and put them on my desk for when I get back?” which I shut down pretty quickly.
Nonperishable food didn’t fare much better:
When we were sent home for COVID we were told it would be a week trial, then we would come back and reevaluate. It ended up being a year, and no one was let back into the building to get anything but IT. A ton of people had dry food like granola bars and cereal at their desks they never got a chance to move out—and when we got back there was a huge problem with mice—they nested in a ton of desks.
Pandemic considerations aside, office kitchens have always been the source of drama. One recurring complaint is about co-workers who bogart fridge space:
We had a few folks go to a discount grocer during lunch and buy a ton of steak on sale. They lived too far away to go home and back during lunch, so they came back to the office, threw everyone else’s stuff out of the fridge freezer, and packed it full.
Well, people were upset, so they took the discount steak and put [it in] a huge pile next to the fridge. Chaos ensued and my boss’s boss’s boss got involved. Eventually the people with the steak just got to leave early for the day. People would bring this up and argue about it for years after the fact.
Thefts are another reliable source of drama—lunches that disappear, the favorite mug left in the drying rack that’s never seen again, and other crimes. Here’s one particularly bold example:
My work used to do an event where they’d feed everyone working the event (maybe 50 people?) dinner. It was usually low key bulk food, like catering trays from the grocery store or Costco. WELL. We had someone walk off with a catering tray of lasagna that served 12.
Security tapes were reviewed, employees were questioned, and to this day we don’t know where it went.
But the biggest source of office kitchen drama is by far the messes people leave behind. This revolting account isn’t atypical:
My office always has various uneaten lunches that become disgusting and smelly (you can smell the fridge even when closed some days), used mugs and Tupperware containers tossed onto the counters rather than cleaned, spilled sugar and cream on the counters, used tea bags in the sink rather than the trash… Just disgusting messes made by professionals who should know better.
My company seems to be full of entitled, self-absorbed people who think just because we have a cleaning staff that they do not have to clean up after themselves. People will leave dirty mugs in the sink, dirty dishes and trays outside on the cafeteria patio, half empty soda bottles on top of the trash cans, dirty towels on the floor of the building’s locker room, etc. The cleaning crew is there to keep the building and workspace clean, not to clean your Tupperware. It is amazing how sloppy people are and how inconsiderate they can be to those they work with.
Even when people aren’t flagrant slobs, the mathematical reality is that having an entire office sharing one kitchen is going to result in some mess. When you’ve got a few dozen people (or more) who each leave a few crumbs or a small drip here and there, it adds up.
Some offices tackle this by assigning everyone to help clean the space, but—predictably—that irritates people who don’t feel they should be responsible for someone else’s mess:
I work in a nonprofit legal center where we are expected to each volunteer to clean the refrigerator. The refrigerator in my office is super gross and I can ALWAYS smell it when it’s open from my office. I have chronic migraines and it tends to be an issue, but I ignore it. For this reason, I opt out of bringing food I need to store in it and I have not used it once since I’ve worked here. I don’t feel like it’s fair that I should have to clean the refrigerator when I don’t use it. Is there any reason I need to be cleaning it? Can I speak up and say that I don’t want to because I don’t use it?
Sounds reasonable but believe me, if you exempt this person because she doesn’t use the fridge, then on the one day she decides to chill a Diet Coke in there, someone’s going to take issue with it. And soon, everyone’s going to be claiming they don’t really use the fridge either.
It also probably doesn’t make the best business sense for your highly compensated CFO to be assigned to an hour in the kitchen each week, rather than spending that time on skilled work only she can do.
In theory, the answer should simply be that everyone is responsible for cleaning up after themselves. In practice, though, there will always be some people who just don’t do it, or whose idea of “clean” is significantly more haphazard than anyone else’s. And given the realities of hierarchy, is it really practical to tell a senior executive that she can’t leave a mug in the sink when she’s running between meetings with funders?
You might think the solution is to hire a cleaning crew, but smaller offices may only have cleaners come in once or twice a week, while the kitchen gets grosser by the day. Some offices assign the task to a junior employee … who frequently happens to be a woman, which is its own issue.
Short of hiring full-time, on-site janitorial staff (great when you can afford it, but not feasible for most employers), the best solution I’ve ever heard to the kitchen problem is this:
My office has a volunteer sign-up sheet for kitchen cleanup: cleanup is on Fridays and if it’s your week you get to leave for the day two hours early. The sign-up sheet is usually filled up three months out!
That still might leave you with a mess the rest of the week, but it sounds like it gets the job done without resentment—the holy grail of office kitchen wars.