PLASTARC’s Melissa Marsh and Mike Sayre explore how employers can move beyond thinking of office restrooms as necessities to add more value to the workplace experience.
Still thinking about your last trip to the office restroom? Probably not if you can help it. In fact, we’d venture that you think about the ‘private office’ as little as possible. And that is actually a bit of a problem. The restroom is one of the only spaces in the office that is used by almost every person at some point in the day. Too often, that experience is something less than a bed of roses. Our collective reluctance to talk about the commode is a huge impediment to improving these spaces.
Potty jokes aside, this is actually an important global issue. Every November, the United Nations marks World Toilet Day. While that may sound a little less appealing than other holidays, it is an important reminder that roughly four billion people live without sufficient access to basic sanitation. NGO’s and governments have made tremendous progress in the last few years, but challenges remain.
Most workplaces pass muster from a sanitary perspective, but the restroom is still usually a missed opportunity. Employers can move beyond thinking of these facilities as mere necessities—these are places to add value to the workplace experience. Office restrooms have the potential to enhance comfort and workplace satisfaction while also playing a role in improving public health.
Touchless technology is now so widely available that people should rarely need to have contact with anything in the restroom. Sensor-operated toilets, sinks, soap dispensers and hand dryers, can be paired with doors that are operable by foot, elbow, or hip. It is even possible to get fixtures like self-sterilizing door knobs and UVC-equipped toilets. These steps might seem excessive if one assumes that everyone is washing their hands. Unfortunately, even during the pandemic, a lot of people still aren’t.
Even before COVID, there was reason to think office restrooms could do more about the spread of germs. For example, it is astonishing how many office toilets lack lids. This was once thought to be beneficial because it eliminated one germy surface people have to touch. However, it has now been shown that flushing aerosolizes the contents of a toilet. There is also evidence that human waste contains coronavirus particles. Every toilet should probably have a lid. Where the code does not require this to be the case, it probably should.
Organizations now also need to address the psychological discomfort people may feel in public spaces as a result of the pandemic. Even office restrooms that are completely sanitized regularly may now feel more hazardous to users than they once did. Investing in touchless systems can signal to people that their wellness is a priority. Additionally, tracking of restroom usage through the use of sensors—and making that information accessible to users—can both increase the sense of safety and help to prioritize cleaning efforts. It should also always be clear whether a space is in use from the outside so that people can manage their proximity to others. It is the employer’s job to make sure that the space not only is safe, but feels safe to use.
Your pipes know your secrets
Many people don’t think about what happens after they flush—waste just goes away. The savvy may already know that what goes down the toilet is actually pretty valuable stuff. It goes to farms by the truckload. Recently, it’s also become more valuable to scientists. The contents of sewer pipes can reveal quite a bit about what is happening above ground. While many municipal sewage systems are under-funded underfunded, they can provide data that might be difficult to obtain through any other means. For example, many localities use wastewater analysis to learn about public health challenges in their communities, such as opioid use.
Similar techniques are now showing promise in the fight against COVID-19. Companies like BioBot can screen for particles in wastewater streams, assessing its prevalence in entire communities. Researchers at Yale showed that they could use similar techniques to detect a pending outbreak up to seven days before it was revealed by other forms of testing. The city of Tempe, Arizona has developed a dashboard that allows the public to see how much of the virus is present in each part of the city. Waste-based techniques have the added benefit of detecting cases when people are asymptomatic or do not have access to testing, while also being both non-invasive.
Everyone needs a break
The name is not an accident—a restroom is a space in which people should be able to take care of their bodies. That includes actual rest. It was once common for women’s restrooms to have lounges with comfortable furniture. These should come back (but for everyone). In some places, the restroom is the only place that is quiet and private. In an open-plan office, it may even be the only room with walls!
Unfortunately, many office restrooms are less than idyllic. For example, many readers in other countries would be surprised to learn that American restroom stalls often do not extend to the floor. This may make the room easier to clean, but at the expense of user comfort and personal cleanliness. Even TV’s least qualified architect, George Costanza, had this one figured out years ago (video). Another typical trouble spot is in lighting, which tends to be bright, cold and industrial. Cheap and easy? Yes. But not comfortable or soothing. Likewise, acoustics are often cacophonous and not very supportive of privacy. Finally, Scott Easton of Affiliated Engineers (AEI) suggests increasing air exhaust rates beyond the minimum required by code: “Nothing says we really don’t care about your restroom experience more than a smelly toilet room.”
One of the many ways that coworking spaces like WeWork have delivered a superior experience is through restroom design. Their business model relies on people choosing (and paying) to work there, so every part of the experience is intended to add value. At a Worktech panel we moderated in 2015, WeWork’s creative director Devin Vermeulen talked about the level of care put into the design, and busted the myth that an enjoyable restroom experience is too expensive for landlords. Relatively low-tech design choices make a big difference in comfort and privacy: full-height stall dividers, warmer and more subdued lighting, and ambient music.
Time to polish that porcelain
No matter what an organization may say about treating people well, the restroom experience is bound to reveal something about their true priorities. It is a critical part of the workplace experience. If the restroom is poorly maintained, infrequently cleaned or otherwise unpleasant to use, that says something.
Consider that people may now be more likely to demand a better experience. As a result of the massive shift to telework precipitated by the pandemic, many people have spent the last six months using only their own restrooms in their homes. The cold, bland, unpleasant office restroom of old may not cut it anymore. Instead, why not strive to make using the restroom a delight?