The porcelain throne has always served more than it’s intended purpose. The bathroom has long been the place to catch up on reading material. In the workplace, the restroom sometimes offers a brief escape from stressful situations.
But the space seemingly has a new role—doubling as an office. In a recent survey of 1,255 people, 73 percent of respondents reported working from the bathroom, with 60 percent doing so once a week and 25 percent doing so daily. “Work” tasks include e-mailing, messaging and even attending virtual meetings.
“Clearly, with today’s technology, a workstation can well be the employee’s smartphone,” said Deb Best, SHRM-SCP, owner of HR outsourcing firm Deb Best Practices in Albany, N.Y. “Which is why we see employers turn off access to work e-mail between the hours of 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. for nonmanagement employees.”
In general, society’s attachment to mobile devices has blurred the lines for what is acceptable and hygienic to do in the bathroom. It seems like there is always some person who continues a phone conversation in a public restroom. And for some individuals, working in the bathroom was the only option when the pandemic shuttered offices, restaurants and coffee shops.
“I did learn of one employee who was working from home along with her partner at the height of the pandemic,” said Megan Connell, an HR consultant and executive leadership coach in the New York City metropolitan area. “The couple shared a small apartment. The bathroom was one of the only rooms available for privacy, so she set up her home ‘office’ in the bathroom each day.”
You might be thinking of an endless list of toilet jokes to tell your friends and family after reading this article. Those likely won’t cut it at work. Here are five strategies you can use to start a conversation with an employee who is continuously working in the bathroom:
1. Ask about the person’s needs. If an individual has been working from the toilet, Best recommends asking if an accommodation is needed.
“It’s rare, but not out of the realm of possibility” for an individual to have a health condition that requires frequent bathroom breaks, she said.
2. Encourage breaks. Remind remote employees that bio breaks are as important at home as they were in the office, Connell suggested.
“Just as we did when we worked in offices, it is socially acceptable and preferred to politely step away for personal reasons,” she said. “See if your team can adopt the 25-minute or 55-minute meeting rather than 30 and 60, to build in time for breaks.”
Best added that it is important to remind staff of the breaks they are entitled to or are required to be offered by employment regulations—such as a meal break away from their workstation.
“Hourly nonexempt employees in New York state who are working a full-time schedule must take at least a 30-minute meal break away from their workstation, and we don’t want employees depriving themselves,” she said.
3. Infuse humor when possible. Ludmila Praslova, SHRM-SCP, suggested sharing study results like the one highlighted above to craft a friendly, light-hearted note in an organization that appreciates humor. The psychology professor at Vanguard University of Southern California offers an example:
“This is what the survey says … . I am SURE good people of [your company] have very healthy personal habits, but if any of your friends working for other companies are working from the bathroom, you may want to remind them that [surfaces] contain 2,358,673,455 bacteria. Thanks, HR.”
4. Highlight why not. There’s a television commercial of an employee unintentionally flashing his thighs to co-workers while attending a virtual call in a suit jacket and boxers, assuming no one would see him from below the waist. Unfortunately, it’s not just a catchy sales pitch. A quick online search reveals news anchors, politicians and more have been caught with their “pants down” on video calls over the last two years.
“Working from the bathroom runs the risk of others hearing flushing or water-running sounds during meetings,” Best said. “There’s also the risk of dropping your device in the toilet or the sink.”
5. Encourage workers to focus on one thing. “Multi-tasking efficiency” is an illusion, Praslova said. Eating in front of the screen and e-mailing from the bathroom rob us of being present in our own lives. She encourages individuals (and HR professionals alike) to try uni-tasking for one week.
“Then there are people who are so uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts, they would rather [electrically] shock themselves than sit and wait. So perhaps there is a deeper reason they can’t part with their phones,” she said.
Nothing is more important than taking care of your own personal needs—biological or otherwise, Best emphasized.
“We all need to have at least a few bright-line boundaries between work and personal time,” she said. “Sitting on the toilet is not just personal time, it’s biologically necessary.”
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.