Before we settled in Connecticut, where I spent most of my formative years, my family lived in a small town called Aurora, Ohio. Aurora would hold the distinction of being the most boring town in America but for two famous landmarks: The Geauga Lake Amusement Park (now known as the Geauga Lake Amusement Park & Wildwater Kingdom), and Sea World.
Most people who live on one of the two Coasts aren't aware there actually is a Sea World in the Midwest, but, yes, there is one, and I even remember visiting it. Like, twice. After school. For a couple of hours. Other families would travel for days to Aurora, just to spend their school breaks throwing dead fish at Shamu and his dolphin friends, but my parents had better things to do with our summer vacations. Every year, they'd pack up the station wagon and take us on a torturous drive from Aurora to Bangor, Maine, where we would spend two weeks visiting my mother's family before turning around and driving home again.
These journeys stick out in my memory for two reasons: first, I would invariably get carsick because my mother used to smoke in the car with the windows rolled up (which fostered in me a lifelong loathing of both cigarette smoke and riding in back seats); second, because, even from a very early age, I somehow managed to survive the entire drive—that's nine hours at a stretch, people—without ever going to the bathroom.
For a child under ten, that's a pretty amazing feat. And, as I'm sure those of you who know me now will attest to, for me it's nothing short of remarkable.
I'm not entirely sure what lay behind my childhood aversion to public bathrooms. Was it the smell? The echo? The pressure of having to…uh…"perform" with a long line of people waiting for me to finish? Whatever it was, age and necessity have pretty much cured me of my phobia, but every now and then I'll flash back to that anonymous Sunoco station on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the familiar wave of nausea will rise again.
For some inexplicable reason—perhaps the fear of the unknown—these flashbacks seem to occur most frequently when I am about to enter a workplace restroom, either at my own company or, more likely, at some company I am visiting. After all, with fifteen years in sales, three in consulting, and god knows how many other jobs in between, I've been everywhere, seen everything, and thus can state with absolute certainty that you can never quite know what horrors are lurking on the other side of that swinging door.
I do know that the disgustingness of any workplace ladies' room is usually directly proportionate to the size of the company in which it sits. Smaller companies usually have the edge on quality, probably because the facilities are often right smack in the middle of someone's workplace, completely eliminating the anonymity defense. Knowing the entire development team can see who's strolling in and out of there on a minute-by-minute basis is a very effective means of reminding yourself, They can all hear you out there, so lay off the burritos and don't forget to wash up!
Big companies, with their down-the-corridor, multi-stall configurations, are a different matter. At these companies, no one cares. Not the employees, and certainly not the management. In fact, I think the powers that be purposely overlook the disgustingness of their restrooms because they recognize the condition for what it is: the passive-aggressive manifestation of simmering employee resentment. It's a cost-benefit thing. They don't want angry workers crapping all over the boss's office, so they settle for the next best thing. Literally.
Not that most companies don't expend at least a token effort to make things better, if only to keep the employee rolls filled. After all, nothing screams "Run for your life!" quite as loudly to a job candidate than his having to do so with a stray urinal cake stuck to his pants cuff. That's why the late nineties were the Golden Age of the Company Bathroom: desperate dotcoms were competing so hard for workers they did everything but wipe your ass for you. And forget about ever having to fish through your purse for change for the Tampax machine—there were baskets full of them, yours for the taking, along with all the hair spray, deodorant, and perfumed moisturizer you could use. But those little perks dried up and withered along with our stock options, and now you're lucky if you can even get the air dryer to turn on, let alone run long enough to do your soggy hands any good.
However, if I were to pinpoint the one variable that is most responsible for the overall decline in restroom quality at the American workplace, I could sum it up in three pithy little words: low flush toilets.
Forget the stock market. Never mind outsourcing. The advent of the low flush toilet is the biggest disaster to strike Corporate America since the Crash of 1929.
Why? I hear you ask. It saves energy! It's good for the environment! It's the mark of a responsible corporation that cares about its employees' futures!
To which I respond, No it doesn't, no it's not, and are you high?
Since when have you encountered a low-flush toilet that actually does its job with a single flush? You have to watch these things, folks, and, if you're squeamish, like me, that is quite likely a sight you could happily live without. The only people who are not likely to not be grossed out by watching are precisely the ones who should be watching—but they're too lazy and/or stupid to be bothered, preferring instead to leave a very unpleasant calling card for the next person in to have to deal with. So not only are you using the same amount of water and effort to double-flush that you had to use with the old-fashioned, far more efficient jet-propelled toilets, you also have an employee morale crisis on your hands. Believe me, it doesn't take too long for word to spread as to who those hateful single-flushers are, and even less time for the offenders to become workforce pariahs. Vicious gossip combined with group shunning is not exactly a winning recipe for cross-functional team building.
Plus, think of the productivity costs! It takes time to stand there and make sure everything ends up in its proper place (i.e., in the sewer pipe and away from human eyes). And it takes even more time to wait for the bowl to stop filling up in those cases when, more likely than not, you have to hit the handle a second, or even third time. That's valuable work time that could be spent making a cold call, writing a line of code, or dashing off a quick email to let the boss know you're taking the afternoon off. What a waste!
And companies only compound their folly when they try to outsmart the most slovenly of their employees by installing automatic low flush toilets. They may not be underestimating their employees' laziness, but they're sure as hell overestimating their commitment to cleanliness. God forbid the infrared sensor doesn't kick in on schedule—prompting either a diffident "Oh, well!" as Pam from Accounting ambles back to her cube without a second thought, or a frantic "Oh, no!" as Chris from Human Resources gropes in vain for the elusive manual flush button—you'll end up with an even bigger crisis. More ill will. More lost productivity.
The only thing stupider than the automatic low flush toilet is the paper seat-cover that typically accompanies it. A token nod to hygiene, the seat cover is the last refuge of the hypocrite: those who are most meticulous about using it are usually those who are least likely to make more than a halfhearted effort to throw it away. Instead, they'll either try to flush it, throw it on the floor (after trying to flush it, ew) or leave it hanging halfway out of the already overflowing wastebasket inside the cramped stall, where it loiters malevolently, just waiting for the right opportunity to attach itself to sleeve of the next unfortunate occupant.
It's pretty clear to me that something needs to be done about this entire situation. Between the lengthy bathroom breaks, the company secrets inadvertently leaked to the wrong person over the top of the stall, and the filth—oh, lord, the filth—the employee restroom is just a shareholder lawsuit waiting to happen. If, on the other hand, there were no employee restrooms at all, think of the money companies could save! Everyone would work twice as fast because they'd be doubly anxious to get home. People would stop fighting over whose turn it was to replace the last roll of toilet paper. Productivity would skyrocket, as would employee morale. And you could cancel that pricey Poland Springs contract without a peep of protest.
Oh, sure, people might complain at first. But I think you'd be surprised at how quickly they'd come around.
And, if not, you could just replace them all with an army of carsick seven year-olds.