Is there any 9-to-5 indignity greater than using the bathroom at work? Out of necessity, office workers have learned survival mechanisms such as pre-flushing (to mask any embarrassing noises), avoiding the post-lunch rush, and using that closely held-secret bathroom on the 8th floor.
The anxieties that surround using the restroom at work are well documented, and the most common complaints involve privacy. When Oprah Winfrey served on a jury, for example, she couldn't use the bathroom unless her fellow jurors sang songs to drown out any noise. If it's not the acoustics, it's unease around the gap between the door and the partition, also known in restroom parlance as the pilaster. Maybe it's the fear that someone might recognize your shoes under the stall door. The fact that we're stuck relieving ourselves among colleagues and bosses just ups the stakes.
Some office bathrooms rise above the rest, but most stink. The solution simply comes down to bathroom design, which unfortunately is an afterthought in many offices. Here's what we want—and why most offices haven't yet obliged.
Oh, the perfect math of the one-toilet, one-room scenario. How many awkward situations could be avoided if offices ditched, once and for all, the rooms filled with rows of thrones separated only by metal barriers? It's also a better deal for transgender workers who might prefer gender-neutral options. Unfortunately for larger workplaces, Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines require a minimum number of "water closets" (bathrooms or urinals) per employee. Offices with up to 15 employees have to have at least one "closet," while offices with more than 110 people need a minimum of six.
Single-occupancy restrooms are simply an impractical and unworkable setup for most offices. Larger companies would need a whole floor or two to accommodate enough of them. Not to mention the difficulty of finding one that's not occupied. "With a single men’s room and a single women’s room, someone goes in and locks the door, and you have no idea when they’re going to come out again," says Bob Brubaker, program manager for the American Restroom Association. Plus, the solo toilet comes with its own set of social frustrations—namely, a lack of anonymity. It's hard to blame any unfortunate smells or noises on the person next door.
George Costanza made a convincing appeal for the seemingly simple design tweak in an episode of Seinfeld 20 years ago:
Unfortunately for George, the partitions don't meet the floor for a reason. "There is mopping and cleaning and sanitizing things that you want to be able to do in a public restroom," explains Debbie Birchback, a part-owner of All Partitions, a Michigan-based stall distributor.
OSHA rules require that workplace bathrooms remain clean and dry and a mop can slide right under partitions. In addition, the economics of an enclosed latrine don't make sense. "You might as well frame out a wall and put it around each toilet," added Birchback. "That’s expensive."
Not that George and the rest of us should give up hope. While higher stall doors are more prevalent in Europe, architects and builders in the U.S. have started requesting them more often, according to manufacturers and distributors. Ultimate-privacy partitions, available up to 72 inches tall, sit lower to the ground and go higher toward the ceiling than do standard doors. "It makes that area almost like a semi-private room," explains Cyrus Boatwalla, director of marketing at ASI Group, the parent company of Accurate Partitions, a stall manufacturer. They cost more money and come only in certain materials, such as the already popular stainless steel; plastic and laminate start to bow if a door gets too tall.
Stalls also come in different depth sizes; 60 inches is standard, but the space can get as deep as 80 inches. The farther back the toilet sits, the less likely someone will spot your shoes.
It doesn't! "It can be almost touching; it can be a couple of millimeters," Boatwalla says, referring to the space between the stall door and the pilaster. "If it’s built right and the architect specifies right."
That sounds easy enough. So why the huge gap where a hastily flung strip of toilet paper is all that prevents awkward eye contact with co-workers on the other side? Boatwalla says it can come down to the slightest tweak in design during construction.
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Say the architect measured 20 feet of space between the walls in a bathroom in which toilets were already installed. Midway through the build, he decided to switch out the tile for something cheaper and thinner. The space is a half-inch bigger, but the builder already ordered the stalls.Though a standard bathroom stall door comes 24 inches wide, it's not uncommon for architects to ask for custom sizing to better fit a space and avoid leaving a strip between the door and partition. A partition manufacturer says it will take four weeks to whip up a new batch of right-sized doors. So what does the architect do? With everything else he has to get right in the office, bathrooms can be a low priority.
"That is the reality," says Boatwalla. "You can't fault any one trade, or manufacturer, or architect, or the guys that built the walls." Birchback, who has been in the business for 29 years, thinks she knows who to blame. "Generally, when people install them—generally, they are men, and they don’t read directions," she says. "And then they end up with bigger gaps."
In the worst case scenarios, building owners willing to spend a little bit of money can invest in privacy covers, adhesive strips that seal the gap between the door and pilaster.
Short of having fully enclosed stalls, there's been no acoustic innovation in bathroom design to naturally muffle sounds, says Boatwalla, who suspects that taller partitions may help. "This is not a tested, scientific fact—just a layperson's opinion."
There are some do-it-yourself options, however. This Fast Company article recommends placing a piece toilet paper in the bowl. A regularly used hand dryer could also provide enough white noise to mask any unfortunate noises.
Photographer: Lasse Kristensen/Getty Images
If all else fails, such little amenities as a basket of free tampons or mini-mouthwash can make all the difference for bathroom goers. Or the creativity focused office, like this one from Adaptive Path, might add plants, toys, or art projects. Then again, things can go too far in the contemporary office, where every space is designed for maximizing productivity. Adaptive Path also has "collaborative" and "participative" work in its office restrooms.
Some spaces should stay sacred.