Teaspoons: Lessons of a Failed Experiment

Some weeks ago a wrote about the teaspoon situation in the office where I work. I had a theory that the presence, or lack, of teaspoons in the kitchen was an example of scarcity theory. Having provided new teaspoons most of them stayed in the kitchen for a while and then disappeared quite quickly. In that article I set out several resolutions to the challenge of disappearing spoons, one of these, was to buy some more spoons and see what happened.

My expectation was that these teaspoons would also, over time, be removed from the shared facility, it happened once the most likely outcome is that it will happen again. If the last set of tea-making cutlery vanished in just a few weeks, then surely the same would happen to another set. I’m giving the plot away far to early, but I can tell you that I was wrong, so far at least the majority of the spoons are still in the kitchen.

This is what happened – with the generosity of Christmas in my mind I decided that I would replenish the supply of stirrers the brew facilities in late December. This resulted in me adding four dozen (48) new teaspoons into the kitchen in the week prior to the Christmas break.

My expectation was that I would be able, within a couple of weeks, to write an article stating that yet again all of the spoons had vanished and that a nice chart would show a rapid drop off once numbers became scarce. To prove this we decided that we should take regular audits of the number of spoons by a manual count.

I didn’t get to write that article because this is what has happened:

The Teaspoon Experiment – Round 2

That’s right the number of spoons did drop off reasonably quickly, but then it stopped and has stayed steady for a couple of weeks now.

Why should that be?

This experiment has left me with more questions than answers, although I do have to admit that some of the questions are caused by my own tinkering.

The normal rule of experimentation is that you only change one thing at a time so you can understand the impact of that change, I ignored that rule and have made things confused in the process.

Could it be Posher Spoons?

When buying the second set of spoons I wondered whether people would treat better spoons any differently to cheap ones. Someone commented to me that they had broken at least one of the first set and I couldn’t be sure that others hadn’t met the same fate. I also wondered whether people might be more inclined to look after a posher teaspoon.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about the difference between a cheap spoon and a silver spoon; the difference was between a cheap teaspoon and a very cheap teaspoon.

Anyway, the smarter stirrers have lasted longer than the cheap ones, but I can’t say whether that’s causation or just correlation.

Have we reached saturation?

Another theory is that we’ve reached the peak of people who regard removal of an item from a shared utility as an acceptable thing to do. This is partially evidenced by the fact that some of the cheaper spoons have returned, these being people who want their own teaspoon, but also want it to be the best spoon.

We definitely haven’t provided everyone in the building with a spoon, that would take significantly more spoons to achieve and quite frankly I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far for a bit of fun.

Will it change over time?

Perhaps this chart reflects people’s New Year’s resolution to be better people and to be kinder to their fellow human beings. Or, maybe not.

Perhaps the cause is people’s desire to drink more water as part of their January health kick resulting in lower usage of teaspoons. Or, maybe not.

Is it because the kitchen has changed?

Some of you will have read: The Suboptimal Kitchen – The 10 Steps to Getting a Cup of Tea

Since publishing that post someone decided that sub-optimal wasn’t good enough and we needed to make the place super-sub-optimal. The change in the kitchen is deserving of another post at some point, but for now you know all that you need to know, there has been a change. This change has meant that for many people getting access to a teaspoon has become something of a challenge causing many to abandon their use.

Are people messing about?

Another, less likely, theory is that people read my previous post and have decided to mess with my experiment. I’d like to think that this was true, but my ego isn’t so big as to think that many of the people in my office have even read the post.

Concluding

The scientific method is there for a reason, the implications of messing with it were obvious in this case. I will keep an eye on teaspoon numbers to see if anything changes, but perhaps it’s time to move on to something else.

Doing experiments with people is always fraught with unexpected complexity.

At least now there are plenty of spoons available in the kitchen again.

Header Image: These are Rydal Caves where we decided to hide for a while whilst the rain descended.

Why do we congregate in doorways and corridors?

You’ve just finished one meeting. You have just enough time to go and make a drink before your next meeting. The drink making facilities are just across the open plan office, down a corridor in another room. As you traverse the office you have to pass in-between two people chatting in the middle of the walkway that you are using. As you turn into the small corridor you notice there are three people who’ve already got their brew (as a hot drink is known in these parts) stood blocking the corridor, again your progress is slowed as it takes a little while to notice you. You politely ask the people to move to one side, which they do, with a surprised look that questions why someone else would want to use this same space. Once you move past them you are conscious that they have moved back to their original position, returning the corridor to the blocked state. They must know that that you will soon return and again politely ask them to move.

I suspect that there is an almost universal frustration that comes from the inability to reach your destination because people are stood, often talking, in doorways and corridors.

Doorways seem to have a particular attraction for people; doorways on corridors are a magnet.

Why have they chosen these places to stop, why couldn’t they move to somewhere more convenient (for you)?

What is so attractive about corridors and pinch-points?

Why do people stand in corridors and doorways more than anywhere else?

The reality is that we’ve all done it, we’ve stood at a pinch-point, blocking access and been completely unaware of other’s need to traverse a space.

I started the research for this post expected there to be a really good, simple, easily found, universally understood answer to these questions, but it hasn’t proved to be easy to find any information.

If I search for something like “why do people chat in corridors” I’m introduced to a myriad of newspaper articles about a school where they’ve banned talking in corridors. I didn’t realise that it was such a big issue 😏.

If I search for something like “why do people block corridors” I get a different issue – the blocking of corridors by residents, predominantly in flats. People leaving objects in corridors for others to fall over seem to be problem that’s experienced across the globe 🙄.

During my journey of discover I’ve discovered that corridors are, themselves, a modern construction in English speaking countries dating back only as far as back as the 1700’s. While this is interesting it doesn’t answer my query.

I did find a couple of articles where I thought I might get to an answer but all they were doing was moaning about the problem, followed by hundreds of comments from people raging against people who stood in such places. I haven’t linked to these articles because most of the comments weren’t worth viewing and many were offensive 😣.

My quest for answers will continue, but for now I’ve decided on a different approach. In order to research some more I think I need some hypotheses, perhaps you have some other ones to add to my understanding?

Standing in Corridors Hypotheses

Why do people stand and chat in corridors and doorways more than anywhere else?

Likelihood of meeting

Corridors and doorways are places of transit. The likelihood of meeting someone in one of these locations is higher than in other places because there’s a concentration of interactions.

People aren’t normally scheduling a meeting in a corridor it’s just the place where they met someone.

Meetings are difficult to move

Once you’ve met someone it’s difficult to move that discussion elsewhere. I’ve tried it a few times and the meeting is more likely to end, in my experience.

“Shall we continue our chat on the comfy seats”

“Actually I’ve got a meeting I need to be getting to. Bye.” (or similar)

It’s a perception issue

Actually people don’t prefer to chat in corridors or doorways, we notice these interactions because people are in the way. If two people in an office, on adjacent desks, are chatting it’s barely visible, if those two people were stood in front of a water cooler it would be noticed by everyone trying to get some refreshment.

Cave mentality

A corridor represents the cave of old where we used to converse. We feel comfy and cosy here, it’s a natural place to chat, we are safe here. A doorway represents the edge of safety with an easy retreat. Chatting in a large open plan office is a strange place to chat, out in the open, vulnerable to predators.

People are annoying

People stand in corridor just to annoy you. I don’t believe this is true, I include it here because it’s what I’m thinking when I try to get past people.

What other reasons come to mind?

Do meeting cancellations make you grumpy? A not so scientific study.

I work in a role where it’s possible that a meeting can happen anywhere in the 24 hour of a day. In general people work together to respect people’s working day, but there are times when a meeting at an anti-social time is unavoidable, that’s accepted. What makes me grumpy, though, is when these meetings are cancelled or postponed, particularly at short notice.

Yesterday evening I finished my normal working day with the expectation of joining a teleconference at 8:00pm. When I had started my break at 6:00pm I had already attended a preparation meeting with the full expectation that the later meeting would go ahead. Still expecting that the meeting would go ahead I retreated into my small study at 7:55pm ready to connect, but in the 1 hour 55 minutes I had been offline the meeting had been reschedule to a later date. I was a bit grumpy, I wasn’t a lot grumpy, because I had some expectation that this would happen. Why was I grumpy?

This experience got me thinking; if the notice of this postponement had come to 6:00pm I would have been delighted. The timing of the cancellation/reschedule made all the difference to my response.

I wondered whether I could create a model, or an equation, to understand this phenomenon, something that would help us to empathise with others in different time zones attending a meeting.

First step, create a chart of grumpiness/delight for a typical meeting cancellation based on time of the meeting and notice period given:


How grumpy/delighted am I if a meeting is cancelled, based on how much notice I was given?

The first observation is that most of the points on this chart are actually ranges that depend upon the type of meeting and the importance of the meeting that is being cancelled or postponed. If a meeting is at an anti-social time, but I don’t think it’s important, I’m not likely to attend anyway. If the meeting at an anti-social time is critically important to progress another activity and is postponed I’m likely to still be a bit grumpy even if I get good notice of the move. Imagine that this charge represents a moderately important meeting that doesn’t represent anything that is time critical.

There are some interesting aspects to this chart:

Good notice can bring delight

If you give me good notice of a cancellation for a meeting at an anti-social time I will be delighted that it’s been cancelled. The reverse is also true, give me poor notice and I’ll be especially glum. If I know before the end of my normal working day that I don’t need to interrupt my evening with a work commitment I’ll be very happy, thank you. If I interrupt my evening, or even my sleep, to attend something that I then find out that I didn’t need to attend will make me sad.

The later it gets the more notice you need to give

There are degrees of anti-socialness, evenings are different to very early mornings but for each of them you need to consider how much notice you might need to give. The danger here is that the more anti-social it is the more notice you need to give; giving 2 hours of notice for a 2:00am meeting isn’t helping anyone.

12-hours notice may not even be enough

Even with a 12 hour notice there is still a window for grumpiness. Assuming that I finish my working day at 6:00pm and don’t check in the evening, the postponement of a meeting scheduled for 7:00am the next day will still make me a but grumpy. I’m normally awake about that time, but attending a meeting at this time will be outside my normal routine, which I’m happy to do as long as there is some value in doing it. Interrupting the normal routine and having nothing to show for it it frustrating.

Zero notice is nearly always going to make me grumpy.

While it’s not always possible to give people notice of a cancellation giving zero notice is always likely to lead to a level of umbrage. If you have some notice you have a chance of re-planning your day, zero notice takes away that possibility.

Lunch is a special condition

Cancellations for meetings that happen around lunchtime are a special condition in the model. Meetings at mealtimes are themselves anti-social, there’s a less marked impact, for me anyway, for breakfast and dinner, but messing about with lunchtime makes me grumpy. Treat that meeting at 12:00pm to 12:30pm with special care.

The end of the normal day boost.

The end of the normal working day is another special case. This is the one time I’m likely to a little peak of delight that a meeting is cancelled with zero notice. Strangely I feel more delighted about a meeting cancelled at the end of the working day than one postponed in the evening.

Having looked at the chart I concluded that there probably wasn’t a formula for this. I also concluded that there were several other factors that influence my response to a meeting postponement or cancellation:

  • Day of the week – a Monday looks different to a Friday.
  • Time sensitivity – how do I feel if the results of a meeting are needed for a time critical activity.
  • Social impact – what I am doing outside of the normal working day makes a huge difference, especially if I have chosen to forego a personal commitment in favour of a work commitment that then doesn’t happen.
  • Reasons for meeting timing – there are very good reasons for some meetings happening at anti-social times, the reasons are not as clear for other meetings.
  • Expectation of postponement – there are some meetings that give me, for various reasons, I have a high expectation of change. My response to these meetings differs.
  • Overall meeting-load – there are regularly situations where I need to choose one meeting over another. Getting short notice of cancellation of the chosen meeting can lead to high levels of frustration.
  • Family and cultural routines – some people’s chart for the anti-social hours would be very different to mine and that signifies their family and cultural routines. I tend to regard early evenings as easier than late evenings, people with younger children probably see this the other way around.

In short, there isn’t a simple formula to work out what my, or someone else’s, response to a reschedule will be, but giving people as much notice as possible is an excellent working practice. Avoiding zero-notice cancellations should be very high on meeting organisers objectives, especially at anti-social times.

Teaspoons: A Story of Abundance and Scarcity

Earlier this year a colleague was bemoaning the availability of teaspoons in our office’s shared refreshment making facility. This had become a regular gripe, but not one that I regarded as critical or one that I should resolve.

This is the same facility that I wrote about some months ago in The Sub-optimal Kitchen – The 10 Steps to Getting a Cup of Tea where making a cup of tea is a challenge at the best of times.

One evening, however, a thought came to me: “I wonder how many spoons I can buy cheaply to resolve this situation for good, and perhaps I can have a bit of a laugh while I’m at it?”

Spurred on by this though I reached for my iPhone and discovered that I could purchase 48 teaspoons for the princely sum of £7. At 14.5p per spoon I decided that it was worth a giggle. I purchased the spoons and arranged to have them anonymously delivered directly to my colleague at the office. The delivery nicely aligned with a week of vacation and hence I wasn’t around when the cutlery arrived which extended the period of mystery. Returning from holiday I, of course, chose to stay silent on the matter which had clearly become a subject of discussion while I had been away.

What happened to the teaspoons?

Initially the teaspoons were retained by my colleague, but eventually a large proportion of them were placed in our Sub-optimal Kitchen for everyone to use.

For several weeks the spoons stayed where they were, in the Sub-optimal Kitchen, being used collectively as a shared asset. We didn’t monitor the number of spoons closely because they were just there. A few went missing, but mostly they resided where they had been placed. People weren’t great at washing them, but that was fine, a few of us undertook the duty of washing all of them from time-to-time. The teaspoons had become a shared utility which was being used as a shared asset for the benefit of all.

In recent weeks that situation has gone through a dramatic change and today there were just 6 teaspoons left in the Suboptimal Kitchen. Within the space of just a few days the abundance of cutlery has been transformed into an asset of scarcity. The occasional washing duty has been turned into a requirement to wash a spoon every time you want to use one. We have returned to bemoaning the lack of teaspoons.

Why the change?

I don’t know what happened to the teaspoons, for sure, but I have some theories.

Theory #1: I suspect that most of the teaspoons are now on people’s desks and they are taking them with them every time they make a cup of tea. They were initially comfortable to leave the spoons in the Suboptimal Kitchen because they were abundant. The abundance meant that they didn’t need to worry about whether a clean spoon would be available so they didn’t need to have their spoon – they had an Abundance Mindset. At some point the volume of spoons reduced to the point where people regarded them as scarce and their mindset shift to a Scarcity Mindset. This scarcity triggered a concern that there might not be a clean spoon available, and worse than that, there might not be a spoon available at all. Once this mindset shift had occurred in a few people it precipitated a rapid depletion of the shared asset as people sought to secure their own access to the facility for the long term and, in so doing, further depleted the asset.

Theory #2: Someone is a teaspoon hoarder.

Theory #3: Someone has taken the teaspoons home to give them an extra-special clean and forgotten to bring them back.

Theory #4: The cleaner has decided to throw them all away.

What are you going to do about it?

There are a few approaches available to resolve this situation:

Resolution #1: I could send an email to everyone in the office pinpointing everyone’s inconsiderateness and asking them to return the spoons. This would be a perfectly legitimate response to an obvious breach of office etiquette, but perhaps this is a little petty. This will be highly embarrassing if someone has taken the teaspoons home for an extra-special clean.

Resolution #2: I could spend another £7 and return the Sub-optimal Kitchen to a status of teaspoon abundance and reestablishing the shared asset. If my abundance mindset theory is correct this will enable the Sub-optimal Kitchen to function a little less sub-optimally for another period of time. If, however, we have a teaspoon hoarder, this approach will give someone the joy of extending their collection. If it’s because someone took them home to wash them, then we will have an over-abundance, but I doubt that will be a problem.

Resolution #3: Forget all about it and leave the Sub-optimal Kitchen in teaspoon scarcity.

What do you think I should do?

What do you do on calls all day? Version 2, but still lacking in accuracy

It’s been a long time since I’ve had quite so much feedback on a post as I have to my recent conference call posts:

Conference calls are clearly a huge subject, which I suppose isn’t surprising considering how much time many of us spend on them.

Given the volume and veracity of the response I suspect that someone who set up a therapy group for people suffering from conference call ailments would have a long queue of people wanting to participate 😉

In the last post I asked whether I’d missed anything, well clearly I had, there were 11 segments in Version 1, here in Version 2 we have 20 different segments, and some of those I’ve had to consolidate together to retain a level of legibility. These new segments have all come from people’s comments. I’m still open to further comments from anyone who thinks I’m still missing something.

The size if each segment is, as you may have guessed, completely arbitrary, but I have tried to reflect my own person experience a bit.

What do you do on calls all day? Version 2