Bogus productivity cost estimates

My attention was drawn to this article that said a manufacturer was marketing to businesses a toilet that was tilted. The idea was to make sitting on it uncomfortable in order to discourage workers from using their toilet breaks to relax and avoid quickly going back to work.

While this was yet another example of the extremes some companies will go to to squeeze more work out of their employees, what grabbed my attention was this part: “Well, apparently going to the toilet is just not productive. In its advertising, StandardToilet estimates that £4bn is lost yearly answering Mother Nature’s call.”

One often sees these estimates about the losses due to some factor (say due to being stuck in traffic or power outages, and so on) but they rarely specify how they arrived at the cost. One method is to take the time that was lost and multiply by the number of workers and the wages per unit time. But how realistic is that as a true estimate of loss? Surely the employee who lounges for a few extra minutes on the toilet will have to still do their work when they get back? Isn’t what we are seeing just a time-shifting of the costs, rather than an actual loss?

It may be that the main purpose of such estimates is as a scare tactic to get employers to buy some product.


  1. says

    If were forbidden to take tea breaks (I don’t drink coffee), I wouldn’t miraculously start to work more productively. Instead I would periodically zone out with my eyes pointed at the computer screen without actually seeing anything. Personally, I am not capable of concentrating for 4 hours straight. I need to take breaks and relax. Never mind that my butt would start to hurt from sitting for hours without moving.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Surely the employee who lounges for a few extra minutes on the toilet will have to still do their work when they get back?

    It sounds like you’ve never had a particularly shitty job.

    If you’ve got a job where you have what I might grandly refer to as “projects” (i.e. anything with a beginning, middle and end, e.g. “connect up that TV so that it shows the corporate ad”), and you have to complete a certain number in a work day, then yeah, sure, your work piles up.

    But there’s an entire class of job that consists entirely of “stand HERE and do this thing until the bell goes”, at which point some other schmuck shows up and stands THERE and does the thing until the bell rings again, at which point you will be back, having been home to sleep in the interim.

    In a job like that, any time not spent standing HERE is sweet relief and (to an extent not to be underestimated) one in the eye for the exploitative employer. Even if product quality is unaffected by people bunking off to the bogs, morale suffers because actually, most people (even ones with shitty jobs) are conscientious, and will try to do a good job and not bunk off excessively. The ones who bunk off too much make the other ones (more) miserable by consistently getting away with it. It’s facts like that that mean a surprising number of exploited workers in shitty jobs will actually welcome inhumane practices like this because they see them as being targeted at the wasters. And the capitalists know this and take full advantage of it. And this is why we can’t have nice things, and why capitalists don’t like unions.

  3. Who Cares says

    This productivity loss depends the type of work that is being undertaken.
    But the people who will suffer having to use this toilet will most of he time be minimum wage workers.
    In other places they have tried cutting away similar ‘waste’ of time usually with negative results.
    As usual I can’t find the article so get the salt ready 😉
    For example there was a company that decided that their office workers were spending too much time around the water cooler. So they decided to see how much more productive they’d be after banning that kind of congregation. Two weeks into monitoring the expected positive effect they reversed the decision.

  4. TGAP Dad says

    Having spent decades working post-college, along with more than a decade prior, I can say with a great deal of confidence that management types narrowly focused on “tangibles,” and “measurables” will always fall for a sales pitch promising more of whatever metric they use. I’ve them deploy countless nonsense after these pitches, including:
    -- Franklin Quest (the day planner/calendar), who claimed data for 30% productivity improvement
    -- Myers/Briggs (the pseudoscience personality test)
    -- The insultingly condescending “Who Moved my Cheese” video
    -- Motivational posters
    -- Open work spaces
    -- Collaborative work spaces
    -- Daily (or thrice weekly, or some other arbitrary frequency) stand-up meetings
    -- “Agile” development approach
    -- Management seminars/books/courses (à la “One Minute Manager,” “99 Habits…”)
    -- And my favorite, management consultants, which is window dressing to lend credibility to a predermined outcome to eliminate 30% of staff. It’s always 30%.
    There’s almost nothing too farfetched for an MBA to swallow, hook, line, and sinker.

  5. Holms says

    This approach only makes sense from a managerial point of view; i.e. that the baseline for an employee’s work uptime is 100%, and anything less than that is time theft. On the other hand there is the human point of view, which acknowledges that people need to take a break now and then, for reasons both biological and social, and that the baseline work uptime is more like (to pick a number off the top of my head) 85%, and anything better than that is a bonus.

  6. Who Cares says

    @TGAP Dad(#5):
    Don’t dis Agile. It works. The problem is that most companies that claim to use it basically just told their people they are now working with the concept without providing the resources and/or training to actually get it to work. Worst case I’ve run into was a company with just 2 programmers where the boss abused Agile to tell them to ditch documentation all together. Yep that did allow them to work faster, also gave me a two year job to sort out the mess left behind once one of those two left and the other one crashed due to the increased workload. I doubt I was cheaper (and that is disregarding that there was a period where nothing happened to the code or getting the replacements up to speed about it) then having those original programmers spend time doing documentation.

  7. says


    But there’s an entire class of job that consists entirely of “stand HERE and do this thing until the bell goes”, at which point some other schmuck shows up and stands THERE and does the thing until the bell rings again, at which point you will be back, having been home to sleep in the interim.

    Even while standing HERE, workers probably need to actually do some work. If a human being is forbidden to have breaks, their movements become more sluggish, their ability to concentrate plummets. They work more slowly and less efficiently.

    It’s impossible to equate working time with productivity. Even in shitty menial jobs. Working more minutes doesn’t mean getting more work done.

  8. johnson catman says

    I would like to add “V2MOM” to the list of worthless corporate bullshit that executives love. It is a “tool” where “priorities” are aligned from top to bottom. Each employee has to write up a V2MOM document and post it. Those have to align with the priorities of your manager, and so on up the line. It is totally worthless to the average worker and is just another “metric” that must be completed so that executives feel good about their initiatives being pumped downhill to everyone under them. Consider yourself lucky if you have never heard of it.

  9. anat says

    TGAP Dad: I have been working in an open space setting for some 8 years. Prior to that only the labs were fully open space, whereas only about half the desks were such. It is far superior to the setting I was familiar with from grad school where each group was in its own rooms. I have a sense that I can go up to anyone with a question or idea and there is no sense of breaking boundaries when doing so.

  10. jrkrideau says

    As a bit of a follow--up to @ 8 Andreas point It’s impossible to equate working time with productivity. there is a lot of evidence of one kind or another, accumulated over perhaps 140 years or so, that too many hours of work, over any extended time can lead to poorer results. If you are making widgets at X widgets/hour then time can roughly equate with productivity for a certain number of hours worked (~ 49/week) but this relationship starts to collapse as hours worked per week increase. Any gains in productivity are lost due to increased scrap rates, accidents and so on.

    My suspicion is that for knowledge workers 40hr/week is too high. I just had terrible thought: Do those ostensibly useless meeting serve as enough of a break that they actually help maintain productivity?

  11. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @Who Cares: I know people who have worked in waterfall methodologies that just called themselves agile.

    Agile does count to some extent, though, as an example of something that is a good idea properly applied but gets evangelized. Not all workflows even in softwate make sense for agile.

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