How to Tame Chaos in the (Office) Kitchen

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From elementary schools to law firms to factories, chaos in the lunchroom is a common problem. Food ages in the fridge and transmogrifies into new compounds. Coffee spills slowly dry on the counter into Rorschach images of our dissatisfaction. And no one, but no one, can be bothered to wash their own dishes.

Unfortunately, dirty office kitchens are not just unsightly—they have real consequences. Messy lunch spaces can reduce productivity by increasing stress and can encourage workers to flee the workplace in favor of telecommuting. In extreme cases, the lack of cleanliness can even make them sick.

If you’re the one in charge of the office, you probably know that maintaining an orderly food space is not as simple as ordering employees (or the janitorial staff) to clean everything up. It’s a question of workplace culture, and there are pitfalls and subtleties that need to be considered—so here are six guidelines for taming a terrifyingly messy kitchen.

  1. Establish a few clear rules.
    These should be posted on a cupboard wall for everyone to see, and should be explained to new employees. But don’t make them too numerous or complicated. Five short rules is about the maximum. Otherwise, people tune them out. 

    You tone should be to-the-point and businesslike—sarcastic messages like “Your mother doesn’t work here” generally don’t inspire people to pitch in, while a tone that’s too nice robs the message of its authority. Try “Wash your dishes immediately after use” and “Please wipe up spills on the counter.”

  2. Involve everyone.
    Everybody contributes to chaos, and everyone needs to take part in maintaining order. Your janitorial staff is probably underpaid and overworked, so leaving it all for them to clean up just encourages staff to be messier in the first place. 

    You can increase a sense of collective responsibility by making the space more pleasant and more useful. Bring in some art or some houseplants, and consider holding small meetings, announcements, and parties (for birthdays or retirements) in the kitchen instead of a conference room.

  3. The cold truth.
    We’re all in this (refrigerator) together, so no leftovers should stick around past the end of the workweek. And consider requiring everyone to keep food that remains overnight in sealed, lock-tight containers. This should eliminate the highly contentious issue of odors, and will contain any disturbing fermentation or fungal cultures that your colleagues allow to develop.
  4. Adapt to your situation.
    Different lunchrooms require different rules. How many employees share yours? Does your employer serve food, or have a store? These things matter. 

    A lunchroom used by a small, stable group can have more specific rules reflecting common standards, or even assigned weekly chores (such as having a different person empty the fridge each week). But some workplaces have large office food preparation areas shared by 50 or more employees, where such practices would be unworkable. In such places, janitorial staff will have to take a larger role, and rules will need to reflect a more diverse set of personalities.

  5. Take the temperature of the room.
    As a manager, you are by nature someone who likes to organize things. The problem is that your staffers may or may not hold the same beliefs. The kitchen should reflect the collective culture. 

    The “correct” amount of order and cleanliness—and the reasonableness of your rules—will vary for each employee. So while it may make you extremely happy to sort the Splenda packets by date and serial number, requiring your staff to maintain that level of order will probably just undercut the respect and authority you’ve earned. You want the employees to feel like you’re implementing their wishes, not imposing your own.

  6. Accept a little chaos.
    It’s important for your lunchroom to be comfortable as well as clean. There can even be some benefits to a little chaos. A study by three researchers at the University of Minnesota found that while “participants in an orderly [work environment] chose healthier snacks and donated more money” to a suggested charity, “participants in a disorderly room were more creative” and more open to ideas labeled as “new.” 

    Professor Joseph Redden, one of the researchers, told The FruitGuys Magazine that “the manager needs to consider what behavior they want to promote. If they want to encourage creativity in a conference room, perhaps that [space] should have colorful displays, scattered knickknacks, etc. On the other hand, perhaps they want to encourage tidiness and healthier eating in the kitchen, so you might make that environment very orderly.”

    If all of that sounds complicated, it really isn’t. The bottom line is to listen to what your staff wants the kitchen to look like, and help them achieve that vision."For more tips, check out this article about ground rules for avoiding kitchen conflicts.

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association and about football for,, IgglesBlitz, and His work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.


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