Silicon Valley's efficiency-obsessed tech giants are increasingly turning to the final frontier to reach their employees: the toilet.
Companies like Facebook, Google, and Yelp are all sticking up newsletters, memos, workplace training drills and other important messages for their workforce on the walls of toilet stalls, ensuring workers can learn more about the business while they do their business.
It sounds like something from a script of the satirical “Silicon Valley” TV show on HBO, but the bathroom work reading is as unsurprising a sight at many tech companies today as ping-pong tables or a barista.
The practice is the latest, and perhaps most intrusive, example of how Silicon Valley's quest for relentless productivity and its yen for rulebreaking are reshaping how we think of the boundaries between business and personal duties. In a world where smartphones and instant messages have made working off-hours from a bus or a bed seem normal, business reading in the washroom may be the next tech industry innovation coming soon to an office near you.
Google was a potty publishing pioneer. Since at least as early as 2006, the $905 billion tech behemoth has published “Testing on the Toilet,” a one-pager that gives engineering advice to fellow employees. It also has “Learning on the Loo,” which helps enlighten enthroned employees about other aspects of the company.
One recent “Learning on the Loo” from October 2019 addressed workforce unrest and employee concerns — an issue that has bedeviled the company over the last few years, with employees protesting the treatment of contract workers and the company's response to sexual harassment allegations. (A Google spokesperson did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment.)
But these days, the California-based search giant is far from the only company to capitalize on employees' bathroom downtime as an opportunity for learning.
It's “arguably a better use of time when on the loo”
Social networking behemoth Facebook offers a variety memos for employees to digest while they deposit.
These include a weekly “Product and Business Marketing Update” internal newsletter that details product changes, successful advertising customers, and other company news, and the suggestively named “The Weekly Push” — a regularly published memo that provides technical pointers and coding advice for employees and engineers.
San Francisco-headquartered Yelp is another enthusiastic adopter of company-mandated toilet reading material. Following Google's lead, it has its own “Learning on the Loo” newsletters that let engineers share info about different parts of the company and its processes with a captive audience.
In a statement provided to Business Insider by a spokesperson, Yelp employee Shrayus Gupta, who co-maintains the program, wrote: “In March 2019, Yelp's San Francisco headquarters started the “Learning on the Loo” program where an engineer from any team has the opportunity to write about an engineering or work related topic and see their work published in bathroom stalls across the office. The monthly program initially started as a great way to introduce effective software testing topics, and has since expanded to more general topics such as how to hold more effective meetings. The program has empowered engineers to write about topics they're most passionate about.”
He also praised the efficiency gains the program offers indisposed employees: “Yelp's 'Learning on the Loo' program has been an effective communication method to share information across the office and, arguably, a better use of time when on the loo. Yelp employees have had overwhelmingly positive feedback about the program — in fact, the team has months of content backlogged!”
Walmart-owned ecommerce site Jet.com also has a weekly newsletter with internal company updates that workers can peruse on the can, a source said — though a company spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 'ideal worker' doesn't let anything get in the way of work — even bodily functions
Sigrid Luhr, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley who is researching the Silicon Valley tech industry and inequality, said the practice is inline with the broader trend of work encroaching into the personal realm in the name of maximizing efficiency.
“Most jobs are premised on the existence of what sociologists call the 'ideal worker,' and this is someone who is essentially available to work at all times they may be needed” Luhr wrote in an email.
“In the tech industry, it seems that ideas about the ideal worker are taken to the extreme, and there is pressure to make the most of all available work hours. So it doesn't surprise me that this would extend even to the bathroom or other times when workers are meant to take breaks.”
Other experts questioned whether toilet reading materials would really boost employee productivity — or whether they're more about workers performatively demonstrating their commitment to their employer.
“Professionals in intensive careers are often devoted to their work and live out this devotion in ways that contribute simultaneously to the company and to the worker's professional growth and a sense of accomplishment. In addition, many employers can expect and sometimes coerce what I call a 'dedication display' that is unmoored from workers' actual productivity,” Mary Blair-Loy, professor of sociology at UC San Diego, said.
“These mandated dedication displays can be invasive of workers' personal time and undermine real creativity. If employers paste work-related reading material on the inside of bathroom stalls, I would see this as a power grab, an assembly-line mentality, a cultural message that values workers' dedication display over their actual contribution. Yet to work at the highest level of creativity, human beings need to take a few steps and a few breaths during the day, to rest their eyeballs in the middle distance, and to be given the respect to defecate in peace.”
Forward-thinking media companies are getting in on the action
It's not just traditional tech companies that are trying to get employees to study while they strain. Several new media companies are also getting in on the trend.
Refinery29, a millennial women-focused media company, publishes a biweekly memo called the “Tissue Issue.” Company spokesperson Chelsea Sanders said that this “highlights standout content across all our platforms, interesting audience feedback and insights (comments, timely research, etc.), recent visual + design campaigns we've done, and of course, birthday shoutouts. It was started about 4 years ago, as an idea from a junior employee.” (Vice, the parent company of Refinery29, has occasional signs on toilet doors but hasn't yet adopted the practice more wholeheartedly.)
And Group Nine, a media holding company that owns lifestyle publication Thrillist, politics outlet NowThis, animal news site The Dodo, and other brands, publishes a weekly newsletter “Whole Nine” that is pasted in toilets so employees can touch up on their knowledge of upcoming events, open roles, announcements, and other news while they tinkle.
“At Group Nine … we like to say that we meet our audiences in the places where they spend their time — our employees are no exception!” a spokesperson said. “We've been posting our newsletters in bathrooms stalls for just shy of one year and it's been very well received. True — some employees at first found it a little funny but it's actually a really great way to reach more people and to encourage conversation around what's happening at the company.”
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