Supplies: Stingy or Supportive?

The topic of office supplies came up on an HR list I belong to -- and it got heated, fast. Most of us ended up in one of  two camps: keep them locked up and dole them out cautiously, or treat employees like adults and it will all settle out in the end.

Lock 'n' Dole

The argument for keeping supplies strictly managed came down to a matter of cost: it's astonishing how many pens and post-it notes a single employee will use . . especially if she is taking them home on a regular basis. And then there are the employees who 'need' a particular (read: more expensive) item -- whether a fancy pen, or a new clipboard, those items also add up to big costs over time.

We're Adults, Right?

The other group argued that there were probably deeper issues at play, because most adults just want to be able to get to the office supplies they need -- anyone else is probably a problem employee on several levels. So, they argue, correct the performance issue, don't punish the whole office.

Moving to Moderation

From my perspective, both camps are right -- but that doesn't solve the problem, or make the issue clear cut for the owner/manager.

Keeping an eye on costs is a good idea, and supply costs can easily get out of hand. I recommend two things: first, set up a central supply closet and carry the basic necessities: paper, ballpoint pens, notepads, etc. As well, set up a system for employees to request 'extras'. Make a habit of reviewing that list monthly, perhaps at the same time as you place your regular order. Which leads to my second recommentation: order supplies monthly, at the most. You'll save money buying in bulk, and it will be less time intensive when you do it. It will also give employees a chance to really think about whether they truly need the special item they requested.

At the same time, treat your employees like adults. Presume they need access to basics supplies (which is why you don't lock the supply closet, generally) and give them a chance to order sepcial items. Having a 'special' type of pen can make an employee feel rewarded, as can the ability to make an argument for a better chair, or a fan to cool an overheated office. All of these things are inexpensive, and go along way towards increasing an employee's sense of belonging with the company. But you don't want them to have a sense of entitlement, or be able to take such things for granted.

It's a bit of a balancing act, but it can reap great rewards for the owner.

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Lisa Mc Sherry

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