When I want to teach students what it was like to live through the paranoia of the Cold War, I show them The Twilight Zone, its episodes replete with unseen terrors and monsters who look just like us. To explain the late 20th century to those born into a digital world, I turn to Seinfeld, which builds entire episodes around miscommunications—Are my friends already in the movie theater? If I go in to look for them, will I miss seeing them arrive?—that could now be resolved with a quick text. And when we want to show future generations what life was like before the coronavirus pandemic, we can show them The Office, whose open-plan environments now look like the relics of a long-lost civilization.
Generation Z has already latched onto The Office as a generational touchstone, partly because its comforting mundanity is a constant in a sea of turbulence. (Imagine a world where you were less worried about losing your job than getting stuck in it forever.) But there’s also something almost exotic about its clunkiness, in the way that vinyl LPs have become objects of fascination for generations raised on instantaneous digital access. As working from home becomes less of a temporary stopgap and moves closer to the new normal, the very idea of forcing people to gather in a room to spend most of their day emailing and messaging one another seems like an antiquity, one to be viewed with ample curiosity and just a little bit of envy.
The Office increasingly seems useful in documenting a workplace culture that is, if not disappearing, at least receding. Since mid-March, many white-collar employees have been working remotely in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While retail employees, restaurant cooks, and medical personnel have continued to report to their usual workplaces, accountants, human resources professionals, and project managers have labored from their kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms. Although the arrangement was originally intended to last perhaps a few weeks while the threat passed, the virus’s easy transmissibility has kept office parks across the country closed for over a half a year, with no end in sight. And some employers have begun to question whether it’s worth the trouble to open them back up again.
Perhaps the phenomenon the show captured best was what it was like to spend most of one’s waking hours in a confined space with an arbitrarily assembled group of people who nonetheless became very close to one another. Dwight helped Michael through the purchase of his condominium, and Darryl coached Michael through negotiations for a pay raise, using tips Michael printed from Wikipedia. Jim was there to comfort Pam whenever she had a fight with Roy, although his motive may have been more than simply to maintain their friendship. Pam and Karen bonded over planning a friendlier alternative to Angela’s oppressive Christmas party. When Karen later tried to hire Stanley away to Dunder Mifflin’s Utica branch, Michael felt like he was losing a member of his family—so much so that Michael took Dwight and Jim to upstate New York to launch a prank war in response. Later, Michael became a surrogate father to the orphaned Erin, reassuring her of her essential goodness and worthiness. Many of the platonic office relationships eventually turned overtly romantic: Jim and Pam, Michael and Holly, Ryan and Kelly, Andy and Erin, and others—which, for a generation that relies on the algorithmic compatibility of dating apps, must seem rather strange indeed.
But while The Office encouraged us to emotionally invest in those workplace relationships, it also reminded us that, ultimately, Dunder Mifflin was a business, as subject as any other to harsh economic reality. In Season 2’s Halloween episode, Michael spoiled the festivities by firing Devon just before the start of the office party, insensitive to how waiting until the last day of the month to perform a corporate-ordered layoff might dampen the mood. In the middle of Season 5, we recoiled in horror as Michael reluctantly but ruthlessly ran a smaller competitor out of business, which brought him lavish praise from Dunder Mifflin’s chief financial officer. At the end of the season, Michael ruined the company picnic by publicly revealing the imminent closure of Dunder Mifflin’s Buffalo branch, which earned him the CFO’s anger. The show also reminded us that work friendships are often a matter of convenience rather than choice and don’t always function outside that environment. When Jim hosted a barbecue, Stanley and Oscar devolved into discussing the sales of a new paper product, realizing that they had virtually nothing in common besides the fact that they both worked for the same employer. Kelly’s pleas to discuss anything else resulted in only a moment of awkward silence. Now, the blurry line between the personal and the professional seems much more solid, apart from the odd spot of idle chat while you’re waiting for stragglers to join the Zoom meeting. You won’t get to know your co-workers better over after-work drinks, because the bars are all closed, and there’s no “after work.”
And, of course, the show also reminded us that sometimes co-workers just don’t get along, with conflict between them making the workplace markedly unpleasant for everyone else. Jim’s constant pranks on Dwight—encasing his personal items in Jell-O, moving his desk to the men’s restroom, convincing him that a Thursday was actually a Friday—came to a breaking point at the end of Season 2, with Dwight threatening to quit if Jim was not fired or transferred. Jim and Pam’s later prank on Andy resulted in Andy putting a fist through the office drywall, which sent him to anger management class. And Phyllis and Angela simply mixed like oil and water, constantly clashing over control of the Party Planning Committee. Virtually anyone who’s worked in an office had at least one or two co-workers whom they tried to keep at arm’s length. The daily slate of Zoom meetings simply doesn’t provide the same opportunity for such intense feelings—positive, negative, or mixed—to develop.
Led by tech companies in California, some firms have begun to realize that there may, perhaps, in fact be some benefits to making some of the current “temporary” telework arrangements permanent. Employers who feared that productivity would decline as workers were distracted by the comforts of home have found that their employees are no less productive—and they’ve even seized the opportunity to cut the salaries of employees who’ve relocated to less expensive cities. The Office gave us many clues why: We saw the workers on the show miring themselves in distractions, from devising a day of “office Olympics,” to Pam planning her (later canceled) wedding to Roy, to constant chatter about weekend plans. It now seems clear that many white-collar jobs do not actually require 40 hours a week to complete and can be done at home in some fraction of that time. Even for firms that do not allow employees to work exclusively remotely, hybrid schedules seem likely to persist in some fields.
Some white-collar employees will undoubtedly welcome such arrangements. There will be no more commutes (or at least fewer of them), no more passive-aggressive emails about labeling food in the office fridge, no watching over your shoulder for a roaming supervisor. You can even grab a quick catnap on your break. But The Office reminds us that there are benefits to laboring in a shared workplace. After all, the office was where Jim and Pam’s relationship emerged and grew. But more generally it was a place where Dunder Mifflin’s employees could make friends and enjoy social interactions, an essential activity for a species such as ours. Articles about “Zoom fatigue” describe the frustration of enduring one remote meeting after another, with communication impoverished by the inability to read body language and other nonverbal cues. Although email, Slack, and other services have allowed workers to keep in touch, there seems to be simply no substitute for dropping into a co-worker’s cubicle for a few minutes and having a face-to-face chat. If the anguished social media posts of my homebound friends are any indication, many of them would, at this point, be more than willing to attend an awkward office party or two.
Projecting exactly what work will look like one year, five years, or 10 years from now seems an impossible task, given how rapidly the pandemic is changing every aspect of our lives. But it seems clear that whatever emerges will not be an exact replica of our pre-pandemic world. No matter how much our work lives change, though, The Office will stand as a monument to the way they once were, and a reminder not to call Dwight if you accidentally burn your foot on your George Foreman grill.