My current temporary assignment has seen me plunged into the worst work toilets situation I’ve encountered in years. The company, a start-up, has a large open plan office, which given my fear of stomach rumbles in confined office spaces was the decisive factor when it came to making my mind up whether to take the job or not.
As a rule, when I go along to job interviews, rather than finding out what a job entails, what my duties are likely to be, what team I will be working for, so on and so forth, I tend to put more emphasis on studying the office layout. How are the desks set up? If, for instance, they’re set up in banks, getting to know new colleagues is likely to be far more difficult. The chances are in those first few weeks that you’ll only get to know people either side of you. I look too at whether the desks have modesty screens, or whether they’ve opted for a 'big table' configuration, which tends to encourage free and frequent communication between a team of four to eight people. The latter set-up makes it far easier to get to know people. I also look at whether management sit with their team or hole themselves up in separate offices elsewhere on the floor. Is there a canteen? If not, where do staff eat their lunch? And, where are the loos? Soon as I show up in reception, I’m looking out for all of these things, especially the loos, trying to establish in my own mind whether I can work in that environment.
In this instance however, I slipped up, failing to notice that both the gents and ladies, located about thirty metres apart, have entrances that are highly visible to the rest of the floor. In fact, there are few blind spots, if any, in this open plan office. In my experience, and my long and troubled nine to five work history has seen me work for over 100 companies, work toilets tend to be located in discreet corners of the office or in the corridors alongside the lifts. The latter can mean people are often engulfed by horrific smells as soon as they step out of the lifts. In this place, while that’s definitely not the case, the set-up means everyone can see who’s going in and who’s coming out. Everyone knows where you’ve been. It’s easy, well if you’re like me - and admittedly, few people are – if you pay attention to these things, to conclude, depending on how long someone has been in there, just what colleagues have got up to in the loo. I time people’s visits all the time. I can’t help it.
It’s my great misfortune in this place to be sitting right opposite the ladies. I get to see who’s going in and who’s coming out. If a female colleague spends more than five minutes in there, I’m horrified. The steady flow of traffic to the ladies is, for someone who likes the opposite sex to retain as much mystery as possible, a real problem for me. On approaching their washroom, a number of them do that looking into the distance thing as they reach the entrance before going in, as if they’ve spotted someone they know 20 metres away, all the while failing to note I’ve made a mental note of the time they’ve gone in there. To be fair, that catalogue model looking into the vista thing is a good pre-WC entry visual. The slowing down a little before going in through that door is also something I like to see, conveying an air of someone that’s not in such a desperate need to go that he or she really should’ve contemplated calling in sick. I like to see people in control of their bodies.
The location of the toilets would be very different here if I’d been involved in overseeing the office layout before the company launched earlier this summer. Only men would sit near the gents and only women near the ladies. It’s too late for this place. It is what it is. But architects involved in designing new workplace layouts from scratch should consider getting in touch with me for advice on where to station the lavatories, because I find the notion that the layout here could be replicated in yet to be constructed workplaces, unacceptable. I don’t want anyone else having to suffer this striking lack of privacy. If one day I was given the opportunity to work with architects on this and I really do hope I am, I’d propose three possible options for making the work toilet experience as clandestine as possible.
Option One: This is quite a simple one and the cheapest of my three proposals. The loos are located behind a high wall; similar to the one Rapunzel’s dad had to scale to get his wife lettuce from the garden of the enchantress. There will be no scaling here though. Access would instead be gained via two low-key, dimly lit side entrances at opposite ends for each of the sexes, affording everyone the utmost privacy.
Option Two: A mini bus with blacked out windows would collect colleagues in the habit of making long bathroom trips at work. This bus would turn up four times a day during work hours. These habitual offenders would then be driven off to some wasteland at least five miles away – in what literally would be toilet trips - where they do what they need to do in rundown portaloos designed to discourage staff from making their visits long ones - before being returned to the workplace. Obviously, this is going to necessitate a flexi-time system, but it’s doable.
Option Three: This final one is by far the most ambitious, some might say extreme, of my three proposals. Workplace loos should be buried deep in basements, as far down into the bowels of a building as is possible, like a time capsule say. The basement would serve as a buffer between the workplace and the disposal of the staff’s waste. These toilets could only be accessed via a goods lift. You would arrive on the toilet-specific floor to find the lights dimmed. Picture it for a moment. A fog machine emits a dense vapour that makes it hard for you to see more than five metres in front of you. Early New Order – The Peel Sessions - is piped through speakers. This is a bleak and desolate landscape fit for only one purpose. There is giant flora and fungi everywhere. As you near the bathrooms, that early New Order is faded out, replaced instead by the frightening audio of wild animals. Big cats. Elephants. Hyenas. This is the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing what Early Man went through every time they had to answer nature’s call, never knowing if they would return to their loved ones from some of man’s earliest toilet trips.
Night vision goggles are given to staff to help them locate the toilets. Gimp masks are mandatory, collected at the entrances soon as you step out of the goods lift. No one will be able to recognise anyone. Ideally, the bathroom etiquette followed by all too few people will be observed here. No small talk will or should be made. Everyone knows why they’re there. Of course, you always get one or two work colleagues who think nothing of stopping one by the urinals for a chat, a nightmare for someone like me. To counter the possibility of running into those people, attached to the gimp masks are vo-coders that will distort everyone’s voice in case they run into any of those tiresome bathroom small talkers en route. Everyone will remain unidentifiable unless he or she choose to reveal his or her identity.
But I can only dream. The reality is no architect out there is going to approach me and allow me to show myself to be the workplace toilet visionary I claim to be. I remain sat opposite the ladies. My ‘vantage point’ is killing me. I’ve asked several colleagues to swap with me but they’ve refused, one going as far as telling me that I need to deal with my toilet hang-ups. I wish I could stop time so that when these women re-emerge from the loos 20 minutes later, oblivious to the fact I’ve timed their latest bathroom visit, I’d believe they’d only been in there for a minute.
If the loo layout of every office were set up like those in my current job, the mysterious quality of the opposite sex would be shattered. When you take into account how many couples tend to meet through work, courting stats would fall dramatically. 50 years from now, there will have been a significant drop in the world’s population figures.
Meanwhile, one female boss here just doesn’t seem to stop going to the loo. Her frequent toilet trips during working hours undermine her authority in my eyes. The only way that’s going to be redeemed is if I hear from some other party that she suffers from some medical condition like the Urinating Man of SW9. Our conversations keep breaking off abruptly. I’m never sure what to do upon her return and find myself on edge as I wonder if we just pick up the dialogue from where we left off? She comes back as if nothing has happened. I’m thinking, “I know how long you’ve been in there. It’s pretty clear what you’ve done.” I do wish she wouldn’t talk to me either side of her toilet visits.
If she came back to resume our exchanges an hour later then that wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be clear that there was no way she could’ve been in the toilet all that time. But when I’m seeing her coming out of the loo 15 minutes later and making straight for me to pick up where we left off, I’m left wondering whether as she’s sitting down in there, she might be thinking specifically of what else she needs to tell me.
Perhaps I need to make light of the number of loo visits she’s already made that day. Or maybe she’d like me to acknowledge her frequent trips to the toilet in a humorous fashion. It could be she’d respond to that favourably and I’d have to accept our relationship would be more scatological than professional.
This manager is not the only one whose lavatorial habits I’ve noted. Today, one female colleague went into the loo talking on her phone. What’s that all about? She emerged 12 minutes later, still on the phone, a handset she continued to use throughout the day at her desk and which as far as I could see had not been wet wiped at any subsequent point.
Seeing all this, I try to persuade myself there must be a simple explanation behind these numerous lengthy toilet visits made by female colleagues. They probably only have one cubicle serving 50 odd women. Yes, that must be it. They go in there, pick up a ticket, sit down and wait their turn. Fights, I tell myself, are probably commonplace, as frustration at waiting for the one cubicle to become available spills over. There can be no other explanation.
I shouldn’t look. I do my best not to. I don’t want to know how long they take, but sometimes, I’m just drawn to the appalling spectacle. That’s the type of person I am. When I arrive in the mornings, the same twenty-something girl goes to the ladies soon as she’s scanned her ID card on the door entry panel. I can’t be the only one seeing this but my other colleagues seem nonplussed by the visual.
I’ve got into the habit of leaving my desk when she arrives and making to the kitchen, or ‘breakout area’ as they call it here, an Americanism I try to avoid vocalising at all costs, to increase my chances of not seeing her exit the loo and knowing exactly how long she’s been in there. There are mornings though when after making my coffee, I’ve returned to my desk and found I’m halfway through it before she’s re-emerged and actually started doing any work.
I feel like going up to her and saying, “You don’t have time to do that at your house? Why not get up earlier?” I’m even contemplating swapping numbers with her so I can give her a daily alarm call in the mornings to spare me the sight every morning.
Today I’ve raised the monitor of my desktop PC to obscure my view of the ladies, but every now and then, I find I’m still catching a glimpse of the top of a girl’s hairstyle that I’ve come to recognise. I convince myself they’re not doing what I fear they’re doing. I watch as they return to their desks with their tops tucked in differently to how they were when they went in, and I tell myself they have to sit down in there anyway. The altered back of the shirt visual on a woman isn’t going to give you the same kind of information you would get from seeing the altered back of a man’s shirt after they’ve come out of the washroom.
I’ve nabbed a couple of reams of A4 paper and raised the monitor even higher this afternoon. It’s a significant improvement. In the absence of building high walls inspired by a fairy-tale, or driving colleagues to wasteland to go about their business, or even entombing the loos in a basement, this is as much as I can do in this place.
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