10 Lessons from the Office Space

[ career  ]

The movie Office Space was recommended by a highly esteemed colleague. Since we both work in Software Engineering and the movie features two software engineers, plus the movie is written and directed by Mike Judge (of Silicon Valley fame), I watched it with my boyfriend, who also works as a Software Engineer. Spoiler alert!

1. Most people hate work

This has been my hunch since I was 16, when I worked briefly in fast food. I see boredom on the commuters’ faces. Now that I work in the office environment, it is rare to see happy people there. The movie validates the hunch.

2. White boys play gangster music to appear cool and tough

Really, is there no other way to connote coolness and toughness? Do office-working caucasian men with eye glasses rely on rap to feel powerful?

Also there was a lack of racial representation in the movie. That merits another article.

3. Passive aggressive managers are a pain

Bill Lumbergh (Peter’s manager) ends his sentences with: “that would be great”. He smiles while telling his team what to do, asking them for a favor that won’t be reciprocated. He also repeatedly reminded Peter on the TPS report. The nit-pick, lukewarm approach on telling people what to do, plus a lack of promotion, motivation, and relationship-building, de-motivates the team. Some corporations treat their workers like robots, but making them feel like they are treated like one is bad management.

Even worse, Joanna’s manager attemps to motivate Joanna to wear more plastic corporate buttons by lecturing her on how the buttons are a sign of self expression. Joanna sees through his weak attempt and asks whether he is telling her to wear more buttons. He trudges on with the attempt, until Joanna gets fed up and flips the finger. In the fast food industry, where the pay is low and workers already feel unappreciated and treated like mere bodies, being lectured in such a way is entertaining at best, demeaning at worst.

4. In pursuit of short term profits, the company will let go of their most precious asset

Experienced programmers are worth much more than what they are paid: their knowledge of the ins and outs of a system is difficult to replace, regardless of who fills their seat. More frighteningly, there was no reasonable precedent to let go of the programmers; the managers haphazardly heeded the consultant’s advice. This was one of the absurd highlights of the movie.

Who benefits? Their next employer, who gets experienced talent that won’t otherwise be on the job market.

5. Given a million dollars, most people will not go back to their jobs

Why? Because most people work for the paycheck. Because their passive-aggressive manager wrings the bare minimum from them, keeping the costs low. This is a vicious cycle until the company lets go of employees to save money. People work for the money. If one has money, there is no need to work.

6. A worker’s attitude towards work will reflect on his/her social standing

The less you care about the work, the more likely you are to get fired/promoted. Being respectful and differential to the manager gets you nowhere. Or let go because a consultant said so, and the company paid an arm and a leg for the consulant’s services, so their advice “has” to be good.

7. People become attached to material possessions

Lumbergh moved Milton’s cubicle several times, and took away Milton’s treasured shiny red stapler, in an effort to get him to quit. These are Lumbergh’s passive-aggressive tactics. Nevertheless Milton’s attachment to the location of his cubicle and the stapler was alarming.

8. Tom Smykowski’s failure to correctly attribute the source of his windfall

Tom’s windfall payout was from the drunk driver who hit him, not from his 30 years of work at the company that unceremoniously dumped him. Yet his advice to Peter was: “… if you hang in there long enough, good things can happen in this world.” But the payout came because the car accident, not from the company. Sunk cost fallacy?

9. When all else fails, set the company building on fire

The hilarious climax of the movie is when we see the company on fire, the arsonist being the most abused character, Milton. For the heroic action, he deserved the windfall payout in the envelope.

10. Lack of women in key roles: what would have changed?

Jennifer Aniston lit up the screen, a standout among the sausage fest of mostly caucasian men. Would things been different if Bill Lumbergh, Peter’s boss, was a woman? Would her team hate her less, or more? There were no women in power in that office. We can only stipulate what difference that would have made.

Summary

This is a highly recommended comedy. There’s truth in jest: in real life, I saw hardworking people get laid off, while those who did not care rise in the ranks.

People get attached to their work, their title, and material things at work. Yet the attachment comes at a price: unhappiness, disappointment from unmet needs, and the hurt from the abrupt departure. Lesson learned? Leave when the going is good. Or start your own company. Why not?

That is what I would do with a million dollars.

Written on February 11, 2018