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Workplace Productivity and Timed Bathroom Breaks

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Heading to the restroom? If you’re a call center employee in one government office, you had better be back in three minutes.

As reported by the Australian news site news.com.au, staff have been told to time their toilet breaks:

Managers ordered all staff to fill out the length of toilet breaks in a “compliance diary”, threatening staff who failed to spend 92 per cent of their time on the phone with counselling and disciplinary action.

The call centre staff, who said they felt “bullied and harassed” by the policy, outlined shocking examples of management invading their privacy.

They included team leaders regularly “popping in” while staff were going to the toilet because they were deemed to have taken too long, staff being lectured for failing to enter into a diary a one-minute toilet trip and management suggesting staff only use the bathroom at certain times.

worker productivity surprise

© Flickr user Leszek.Leszczynski

These kinds of stories seem incredulous, but we all know about employers well on their way to measuring time spent in the bathroom. Already many companies require their workers punch a clock in order to pay them down to the minute. Many automatically dock thirty minutes for a lunch break and some employee handbooks outline the number of allowed breaks per work period. Where is the line between filling out a time card and having to count minutes spent in the bathroom?

In some respects, this is another story about worker productivity and micromanagement. The tale of this government office sounds like the Canon Electronics company where employee satisfaction is low thanks to alarms sounding if you walk too slowly. But really, this is an extreme example of our fundamental perspective on work: It’s much easier to measure time than to measure results. Everybody can agree on the meaning of an hour, but it’s tremendously difficult to agree on the meaning of a job well done.

That doesn’t mean that all companies can or should stop paying people by the hour or by the year. Rather, it’s a reminder that measuring time is just a poor approximation for understanding work. If you are worried that your organization is struggling with metrics, contact our business consulting firm. We help companies and non-profits find ways to improve processes that respect stakeholders and produce meaningful results.

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