Last year, our Ann Arbor workplace touched a third rail: office toilet politics.
Collectively, we allowed the bathroom to fall prey to the tragedy of the commons: flipped-up lids (we’d agreed as a community that “down” was the correct default position), less-than-sparklingly clean commodes, and expended rolls. Some of us in the office felt that the work of righting a disheveled bathroom fell disproportionally upon us. But when we did the work, no one but the anonymous perpetrator could have possibly known. The detrimental effects of unacknowledged glue work kicked in, and by the fifth empty toilet paper roll I had to replace, it got under my skin.
Not one to stew alone in a pity potty, I let our managing partners know about the problem and commiserated with other colleagues who’d also been doing the work of tidying up the restrooms. But this approach didn’t end up being satisfying or effective. Griping with my fellow roll-replacers only made us even more dissatisfied, and when the managing partners made stern announcements to the office about cleaning the restrooms, it largely fell on innocent ears. Worse, the problems persisted.
My approach was not fixing the problem, and it was even making things worse.
Rolling Out a New Approach
One day, I visited a restroom and noticed an empty roll on the dispenser for the second time in an hour, despite the fact that the replacement roll was within arm’s reach. As always, I reached to replace it, but not before feeling the creeping annoyance of this invisible work going unnoticed again.
Angrily eyeing the empty roll, I thought about how my approach to solving this problem wasn’t working because of a lack of visibility. Perpetrators could imagine they were enacting a victimless crime when they used up a roll, and I needed to make the work visible if I wanted it to stop.
I snapped a photo of the empty roll and doodled a PSA to submit to Slack:
When I sent this out to the office via our shared channel, I immediately felt better. Though I ended up changing the roll, this time I didn’t let my resentment bubble up unacknowledged. I also avoided expending much social capital by using a little humor in the message, instead of wagging my finger at a future standup meeting.
I’d love to say that the single image completely prevented the problem from recurring. It didn’t. However, I did take the lesson about using humor to make my glue work visible, and I took the opportunity to up my creativity in toilet paper doodles. Here is my toilet paper art retrospective:
Wiping Out Bad Behavior
I wouldn’t say I began looking forward to finding empty rolls, but when I did, I no longer felt the negative feelings I used to associate with it. Besides, the campaign actually reduced the recurrence of finding empty rolls (my Slack history gives me the dates for each discovery).
- September 14 2018 (x2)
- Oct 24 2018
- Oct 25 2018
- December 4 2018
- February 6, 2019
- July 10 2019
I found myself almost missing them.
Better yet, colleagues in both offices began adopting the practice as a little game.
Here’s a submission from Ann Arbor software developer and budding digital artist Jarek:
Better still, the practice spread across the state, and my colleague Kimberly began using it in the Grand Rapids office:
A Cheeky Approach to Problem-Solving
Building on this experiment, I want to find other ways to use levity to solve problems in the workplace. Before I began my Toilet Paper Roll Art campaign, I felt like I was backed into a stressful corner with two bad options. I could either grow increasingly frustrated with my colleagues by simmering in silence, or I could ratchet up my protestations until I damaged my reputation in the office.
Harnessing levity, in this case, gave me a third path. Using disarming creativity offered me a way to fix something without sacrificing any relationships, and it spread! I love the idea of using levity as a creative third option in the workplace when encountering challenges. I’m having trouble coming up with more examples, but I would love to hear yours!