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.
The holy grail of a single-occupancy restroom
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.
What about floor-to-ceiling stall doors and walls?
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."