I’m brave enough to say it: the best part of working from home is using your own bathroom. I know I’m not alone. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable using a restroom at work, though millions are, I simply prefer my own space. Bringing privacy and comfort to the office restroom will not only help workers with gastrointestinal health issues but also makes the office a place more people want to be. After more than a year apart, creating better public restrooms will be key to overcoming the cloud of agoraphobia that’s settled over many.
Experts estimate about 20 million people in the US suffer from paruresis, commonly known as pee-shyness. Parcopresis, bowl shyness, affects millions more. Doctors say the numbers are likely on the low side, only one-third of patients suffering from these disorders have had them diagnosed by a physician. Public restroom shyness is on a spectrum, some sufferers simply report anxiety, for others, it’s practically impossible to overcome. Tens of millions of Americans have issues around public restrooms, designers are doing very little for them.
A good restroom isn’t just about accommodation, studies have shown the state of a restroom can influence people’s opinion of a place. We all know that let down you feel when you find out a place has paper thin toilet paper. Business legend Steve Jobs saw the restroom as an essential place of gathering and collaboration. At Pixar, which Jobs helped found, he insisted there be only one restroom at the company’s Emeryville, California HQ, forcing colleagues from around the company to intermingle in one centralized location while promoting health and wellness by having employees walk a little farther. A good restroom might also help win a client visiting the office or a candidate applying for a position. Good restrooms are essential. So why are so many so bad?
By and large, most restrooms are designed simply, more about the function than the form, the goal being to get as many people in and out as quickly as possible. “Nice” restrooms usually mean nicer finishes, little changes about the layout. Most don’t offer more than granite countertops, bright lights, simple tile, and a regular cleaning schedule. More private areas in restrooms is desperately needed, considering most toilets even in nice restrooms don’t have lids, spraying toilet fumes everywhere with every flush. Before the pandemic, greater demands for privacy were taking shape in bathroom design in light of recent attempts to politicize bathrooms around gender issues. Now that we’ve all become accustomed to accessing our private bathroom throughout the workday, the demand for an improved public restroom is even greater.
For all of the negative press around WeWork we have to give them credit for pushing offices to up their bathroom design standards. Anyone who’s used a restroom at a WeWork knows how much thought the company puts into the space. They go to great lengths to provide full floor-to-ceiling privacy partitions, automatic air fresheners, music (to avoid awkward noises), and plenty of space to accommodate everyone. WeWork even goes a step further by incorporating bold wallpapers, great views, and fun neon lights to make using the restroom at work a more enjoyable experience. WeWork’s design philosophy is to make the restroom feel more residential than clinical, that mindset is key to turning public restrooms in offices into more welcoming places.
One major improvement to the overall restroom experience would be better toilets. The United States is woefully behind on toilet technology. In Japan, most toilets have as much functionality as a smartphone. They have integrated bidets, heated seats, dryers, deodorants, night lights, music players, and white noise machines, all controlled and by an electronic panel next to the seat. They can even clean themselves. Once you use a fancy Japanese toilet, you will be burdened with the knowledge of how lacking most other toilets are. And you will certainly be disappointed by every American public restroom. Our restrooms are stuck in the 20th century.
It isn’t just offices that can stand out with better bathroom facilities, some retailers have found success in investing in toilet-related technological advancements. Buc-ee’s, a beloved Texas-based gas station, is renowned for having some of the best public restrooms in the country. Many traveling Texans won’t stop anywhere else. A typical Texas-sized Buc-ee’s location has dozens of pumps, serving hundreds of customers at any given time. Even with all that traffic, Buc-ee’s restrooms have received national recognition for cleanliness. Buc-ee’s offers more privacy than a typical public restroom. Expansive restrooms are lined with stalls that have full-height sides and only a small opening for airflow at the bottom and top. Some Buc-ee’s locations have installed a new technology dubbed Tooshlights, displaying a red or green light above the stall entrance to indicate if it’s currently occupied, preventing unexpected surprises. Buttons prominently placed in each restroom can immediately alert staff to any issues who are committed to promptly addressing concerns to maintain Buc-ee’s sterling restrooms and reputation.
What is essential in creating a better public restroom experience? Privacy, provided by floor-to-ceiling partitions, some form of a speaker system for noise mitigation, and a clean scent to help hide smells. WiFi access, bag hooks, and shelves in the right place. Full-length mirrors for people to make sure they’re looking their best. Interesting wallpaper, reading material, or other personalized touches. Staff support should always be on hand to correct any issues and ways to alert staff to problems should be prominently displayed and easily accessible. Touchless, high-efficiency fixtures (with lids, for the love of God) can help move things along while preventing the spread of germs.
The American public restroom landscape is slowly improving. Every year Cintas, one of the biggest restroom suppliers, holds a competition to find America’s best public restroom. The most recent crop of winners offers a glimpse into a more perfect world, including the Greeley Square Park bathroom in Manhattan that has Italian tiles, historic photographs, flower arrangements, and even its own climate control system. The United States was decades behind in restroom design, COVID-19 has shown us just how important that is. Improving restrooms in offices makes the world a cleaner place, promoting public health and creating more accommodating spaces that people actually want to use.