Office Spaces in All Places

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In August 2020, I was interviewed by a school district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When I explained the first time I was questioned, in a rapid-fire twenty minute response session, that I was uninterested in collaboration with other teachers, it came up in the second session as a conflict. “We have to maintain equity” was the phrase I was told.

For me, the question of collaboration was between teacher and student, and never teachers. After all, what benefit could collaboration give if the students of one classroom were wholly different from those of the other? Just because the curriculum between 10th grade teachers is the same, it says little of how the students learn that material. Nor is it acceptable to assume that the two teachers are at all willing to forego their individuality for the sake of “equity”.

When I heard the word “equity” used in that conversation, it took me months to fully wrap my head around the implications. Forget the desire for “differentiated” learning that made up much of my early time as a special education teacher I suppose. Coming from an administrator, I think what they were suggesting was that if two teachers taught in a different way, it could lead to widespread disparities in the results of the standardized tests given each year. Which would mean that the job of evaluating teachers based on “merit” would be impossible. That’s one supposition. Another is the assumption that there is only one way to teach students effectively, and somehow the curriculum designed is the one that offers the “best” results. The only ambiguity is whether “what” is taught is done so effectively or ineffectively.

So what does this have to do with Office Space?

I bring this up because Office Space holds up, not for what it says about the dwindling middle-management jobs of the post-industrial workspace, but for what it says about a growing amount of careers, the ones supposedly devoid of this top-down micromanagement over the people they employ.

The beginning of Office Space is one of the best for those who commute every day to a job they actively despise. Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) sits in heavy traffic, making minute gains that are overtaken by other lanes of cars for no apparent reason. Gibbons does what I despise seeing: changing lanes to get one car ahead. And of course, as soon as he enters one lane, the other pulls up. It seems silly for Gibbons to be so passionate about getting to work earlier, were it not also for what it is like being in the unpleasurable experience of being stuck in traffic, which too is its own hell, but there you have it. But it’s not just Gibbons. His colleagues Michael Bolton (David Herman) and Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) are also participating in the maddening effects of being bottled up.

Once they arrive, Gibbons is lambasted by his employers and supervisors. Careful attention has been paid not to the actual substance of Gibbon’s report, but to the cover sheet that goes on the front of the report. Multiple managers, in particular Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) make it a habit of delegating tasks and reprimanding those who fail to adhere to periphery requests that have no relation to merit, but all to do with signaling a response to their needs and desires. If only Gibbons had read his emails! If only Gibbons had read his memo!

Bosses can only feel like bosses when there’s a problem that is created by desires that are unnecessary to the role of the actual job at hand. Key to Office Space is never seeing the report Peter wrote. What was even in the report? What was its quality? Did it have substance of critique or analysis? Instead, it suggests more about the dynamic between boss and employee. Had Gibbons perfectly read the memo and attached a cover sheet, what would Lumbergh have done this whole time?

Office Space succeeds because it is able to translate this knowledge work dilemma into the service sector as well. Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) seems as though she has a strange leg up on the boys in the office. She socializes, works a low-stress job, and is able to (we hope) manage her own hours. The truth we know is far far from that. Her manager advocates heavily for “flair” as a form of self-expression. Joanna has the minimum amount of 16 pieces of flair, but apparently 16 is not enough. We see what Joanna sees, which is that mandatory self-expression is not expression at all. It’s imitation. The manager abstracts, stating that “people can get a cheeseburger anywhere” that people go to their restaurant for the atmosphere and attitude. Joanna offers the manager a mea culpa by guessing that he wants “more then”. But the manager’s pedantic eyes expand as he luxuriates through every mission statement he has likely heard in some training. The assumption by the restaurant is that atmosphere and attitude are both things that can be made concrete with flair, which is not at all the case. If Joanna has to take this shit from her boss every day, what kind of attitude is she going to bring to her customers? And perhaps people go to Chotchkie’s not for the attitude or atmosphere at all, but perhaps because they make a good fucking burger. Maybe they go to this one because it’s down the street. Whatever happened to location, location, location?

Where the film is not quite at its peak is in Peter Gibbons and his essential problem with work. He seems, unsurprisingly, dissatisfied with the work of changing bank databases to reflect the coming of the next millennium. This is a clean up process, attempting to smooth the flow of capital so that the machine can continue churning. But just because, at the end of the film, Gibbons switches over to construction and hard labor, his problems would not just go away. The tools he manipulates, though being physical and outside, are still toward the purpose of cleaning up. His neighbor Lawrence (Diedrich Bader) exudes an aura of immediacy and no nonsense, a “cut the bullshit” attitude that Peter eventually latches onto. But to me, Peter’s problem with work had little to do with the type of work that he was doing, but rather the feeling that he was missing out on something creative.

Lacking creativity is a profoundly hidden and special theme of Office Space. Many of the workers who manage to do the tedious and mechanical work for long enough, and who are able to smile all the way through, are given promotions to upper management. But Bob Slydell (John C. McGinley) and Bob Porter (Paul Wilson) are at a loss as to how to turn their efforts into success for the company. Is it any coincidence that the two are named Bob?

I bet you did not even know their names until this moment.

While they interview each employee, genuinely asking what role each person has in the company, their role as a result seems redundant. And leave it to Gibbons, “enlightened” through hypnotism, to “cut through the bullshit” and offer them a handout by demurring to an idea of “stock options”. What is so shameful about this scene is that both Bobs miss the entire point of Peter’s monologue, which is that they got a rare taste of how demoralized and unproductive their workforce has become. Further than that, moving up the ladder in the company seems to provide a set of skills which bear no relation to the work the Bob characters need to do now, which seems to require innovation. Rather than admit to themselves the forest, which is to say that there is a huge problem, they instead see the trees. They only really care about the inertia of keeping their system going.

Without creativity, without humanity, you get Milton Waddams (Stephen Root). Had Milton not run away with cash in his pocket after the fateful fire, who knows how dark his end could have become. Milton routinely acquiesces to each demand made of him. Though he complains, it is of such a volume that only he can hear. His ambitions, as a result, are as miniscule as his cubicle: he likes that stapler. The danger in Milton lies in just how much every company wants little Miltons, lolling around everywhere like walking iPhones, a kind of soothing Siri that can answer every question with facts and logic. The information economy is one seemingly devoid of creativity that lies outside of economic gain, and Milton is the epitome of utility. He is the best at adaptation, but only to the goldfish bowl he is put in. The danger of this information economy is not the mechanization of life, but of life becoming mechanized.

Much like rush hour traffic, when things break, oftentimes it is the working class that has to pick up the pieces. When Peter, Michael, and Samir bust apart the piece-of-shit printer, it is so cathartic because of what it implies about the hierarchy of problems and solutions. Compared to all the classes available in Office Space, the one who is markedly absent is the leader, the CEO of the company. It’s clearly not Bill Lumbergh, who offers out Hawaiian shirt day in a way that assures us he had no part in drumming up a morale booster. Like a kind of God, the CEO’s absence creates an existential threat to the psyche, as big as Waiting for Godot. Does the boss know that all the printers do not work? Does the boss know that each day of work is so monotonous that they actively disengage from work for the majority of the time? Odds are, he or she doesn’t. If he did know, he doesn’t care. When the building itself is set on fire, a cry for help if I ever saw one, the boss does not interfere either. In a similar way to the top, if we got to see more of Peter Gibbons and his work in construction, at the bottom end of the labor spectrum, I’d suspect that the themes of Office Space would break as a result.

There’s a line going around that the modern economy stimulates growth because an office worker can do more than a laborer for productivity per hour. Never in these assumptions is it asked of the office worker just how “productive” he or she is. In Office Space, most likely due to the limitations in the knowledge base of the writers, we are never privy to just how much work is being done, nor which colleague is the “most” productive. The time that we see the characters most alive is when they are breaking the law, devising a plan that seems so obvious to the viewer that it would never work. The powers that be are so strong that the opposite heist must be just as fantastical and just as unlikely.

What I can tell you is that, in the realm of teaching, the people who are considered “most productive” are the ones who achieve the highest scores on standardized tests. No follow up is done on the students, in the years following these standardized tests, on what kind of success is actually engendered from those high scores from earlier years. It would be impossible, anyway, to imagine that the benefits to a set of students could be worked back to a single teacher anyway. Students change hands to dozens of teachers, not to mention all the other factors that make up a student’s life. Standardized tests therefore are a ruse that allows the administrative, data-manipulating class to function. The performance on a test outweighs important and hard to document and therefore real learning. The map is bigger than the territory.

Office Space came out in 1999, but its topicality holds true to this day, in large part because we doubled down on the wager of profit equaling “success”, regardless if it destroys any semblance of dignity or respect in the creativity of any pursuit. With artificial intelligence’s ability to take the reins in tagging, categorizing, and updating a feature-set in many knowledge work fields, it’s unclear whether the pace of atomizing work and destroying initiative will slow any time soon. Unlike Milton, not all of us stumble on a gold mine. Far more urgent than the individual question of Milton or Peter is the collective one. With existential threats on the horizon, is climate change going to care about flair? Is it going to care about cover sheets on memos? Our desire simply to make old things more efficient, rather than get creative, does not hold up well against large scale problems. Does it really make sense for every single United States citizen to read the same books, take the same tests, and think the same way? While Office Space’s Generation X had to contend with a society that abandoned them, millennials have the unenviable task of contending with a society that may not exist at all.

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