The Office, Communities, and the Ideal Workplace
Why is The Office so popular? The Office is a show about a “dysfunctional” office, the level of dysfunction falling to caricature. There are many colorful and/or attractive characters, hilarious and touching situations, awkwardness, and the general banality of a workday spent doing otherwise uninspiring, thankless work. That’s a pretty common set of features to include in a successful comedy. Yet, almost two decades after the show premiered, it comfortably sits atop the television comfort food list for many, many people. People watch it over and over again.
Significantly, The Office is about a community. The people in the community are diverse. They don’t always get along. They don’t even really have a common purpose. They only rarely appreciate each other. Yet, they grow closer and closer as time goes on. They endure hardships together and get to know each other (and we get to know them) beyond their characters. Their lives become more complex, interesting, and intertwined as the community grows. This, of course is a product of outstanding writing (as discussed here by Michael Schur) and an incredible ensemble performance.
What if the pull of The Office is that it depicts what an office should be rather than how dysfunctional it can be?
This post isn’t about The Office. It’s about the idea of “the office”.
What is an office and what should an office be? What does it represent? Should we even have offices anymore now that so many of us work remotely? Why is The Office’s office, ostensibly a dysfunctional workplace populated by characters who shouldn’t otherwise get along, so captivating?
Let’s consider the possibility that The Office captures exactly what an office should be. The characters on the show work in an open-style floor plan. This facilitates collaboration, which employers like. It also encourages discussion and shared experiences, which employees like. There are private nooks there for alone time and processing as well as private conversations. The characters have a reasonable work/life balance allowing them to spend time with each other in recreation outside of work, some imposed and some organic. The characters have reasonable salaries and no one is angling for a substantial increase, choosing instead to cultivate hobbies and plan for retirement.
The community becomes closer over time and move past their differences. They become friends and truly care for one another despite their differences. Those who decide to leave (think Jim with sports marketing or Pam with art school) rarely do so for higher pay but to satisfy personal interests or ambitions. The boss, Michael Scott, while problematic in so many ways, experiences all of the above alongside the office’s employees rather than from an exalted position within an aloof c-suite. Employees there begin to like him. Despite Michael’s often inept performance by traditional leadership standards, his bosses choose to let him stay in place for a very long time and I suspect his high rate of employee retention both saves Dunder Mifflin substantial money in terms of hiring/training and increases its revenue as experienced employees perform much better than new hires. I don’t think the Scranton branch is as low performing as we are led to believe.
The Office demonstrates the best of what makes a workplace meaningful and high-functioning despite the show’s attempt to redirect the audience’s attention toward dysfunction.
We’re told by countless special interest groups that the solution to challenges in a variety of professions (healthcare and education to start) is higher pay. In many cases, of course, that’s true. However, higher pay is not a panacea. While the lack of a social safety net and rampant inequality are real, it may be worth considering that what makes modern workplaces miserable is not so much low pay as the lack of community there. We’ve built our workplaces around “productivity” and “efficiency” based on surrogate markers of what those are. “Community” is harder to define and thus not widely considered in structuring the modern workday. Unfortunately, it means that worker turnover is extremely high and satisfaction has never been lower. This will become even more commonplace as people move toward remote work.
The things in the office that make The Office so special are becoming harder to find. Because there is no longer a pull to offices, we demand higher pay to work in them or refuse to return to do so altogether. Workers are forced to find community elsewhere.
Employers would be remiss to not consider the importance of facilitating community when creating places for successful businesses. The rest of us should consider and appreciate the value workplaces can add to our lives.