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The Slippery Slope of Workplace Optimization

Design - Product design
Credit: StandardToilet

In logic and argumentation, one particularly common fallacy is the “slippery slope.” These fallacies occur when someone points to one thing happening as evidence that something else will happen down the road. For instance, saying “if we raise the minimum wage to $15 today, we’ll be raising it to $25 a year from now.” In this example, the raise to $25 is not a logically-supported outcome of the first raise to $15, and therefore it represents a fallacy. 

I bring this up because it’s important to be aware of this fallacy in the seemingly all-or-nothing commentary on workplace design. Also I particularly like this analogy because it is both figuratively and literally descriptive of the argument happening right now over the Standard Toilet, a new type of bathroom hardware meant to increase productivity in the workplace. The Standard Toilet is similar to a normal everyday toilet except that it’s rim is angled (sloped if you will) downwards toward the front. This adaptation is meant to begin putting a strain on the user’s legs after around the five-minute mark. By keeping workers out of the bathroom, the Standard Toilet is meant to decrease wasted time during the workday and increase overall productivity. 

The impacts of the Standard Toilet, though, go a little farther than high employer expectations. It could also find use in public bathrooms, such as those in shopping centers, libraries, or other high-traffic spaces. The most interesting implication of this new toilet, though, is the conversation it signals about work itself. 

As the Atlantic rightly pointed out, employees of companies that install inherently hostile hardware like the Standard Toilet would probably respond to such aggressive productivity policies with frustration or anger. There seems to be a rising sense that companies are expanding their scope and influence beyond what most consumers and employees are willing to allow. Privacy rights is one flashpoint in this ongoing discourse, but there are other examples as well. In many ways, the shift towards remote-friendly work is another example. The presence of workplace sensors is another. Some of it is pure economics, too. Will the workplaces of the future track hours or productivity, and how does that difference affect a company’s ability to attract the best employees?

Taking stock of all this, it seems that there’s a major conversation coming in the near future focusing on the way we are supposed to work. The table is set. Automation is rising in effectiveness. Self-driving cars are, well, driving themselves. Algorithms and robots are poised to exert pressure on the labor market, high and low skilled alike. New technologies are making it more possible for managers to exert direct control over their workers, while also empowering workers to use whatever space best suits them. The possibility of an upcoming recession could be the match that lights the kindling for this greatest of discussions. Laid-off workers might lose faith in conventional work arrangements with their hourly assignments and angled toilets, while embattled businesses begin to push harder for greater productivity from their employees. Perhaps the next recession, whether it is in one year or five, will come to an end as a greater emphasis on automation and unmanned workforces than ever before redefines much of the work economy. 

Back to the slippery slope that we started with, the Standard Toilet won’t by itself cause any of this. It is, however, a useful sign of the times, even if it has yet to show up in any workplace. It stands for a few things. On the negative side, a cynical disregard for employee wellness in an era that professes to put holistic health on a pedestal. On the other hand, it’s also a reflection of how the behavior economics, the process of designing to influence behavior, that is permeating the tech world is coming to the built one. There may be a place for the Standard Toilet, particularly in high-traffic areas like public spaces. Or perhaps some businesses will use the new piece of hardware and suffer the loss of employee respect that would be sure to follow. Either way this represents another inch of slide into the battle over what is considered right and wrong when it comes to workplace experience.

Image - Design