It’s been 20 years since the 1999 cult classic movie “Office Space” was released and workers everywhere bonded over their shared disdain for mundane work, lack of functional resources, poor communication and motivation, and ineffective reporting structures. We followed worker Peter Gibbons as he transitioned from disengaged employee through his awakening and career change. We saw what happens when the employee’s values and company culture are mis-aligned. And who could forget the satisfaction of seeing defunct office equipment destroyed with a baseball bat?
Have we improved the workplace experience at all in the past 20 years? If a sequel to Office Space were released today, would the story be any different?
I believe the 2019 version of Peter’s company, Initech, would have embraced the open office design. Instead of Peter bringing his own power tools to disassemble his cube so he feels less boxed in, he would instead bring his own Bluetooth noise-reducing headphones and privacy shield for his computer. He would duck from huddle room to huddle room trying to dodge his boss instead of hiding behind cubicle walls.
Of course, in the 2019 version of Initech, manager Bill Lumbergh wouldn’t actually walk around the office to find Peter. First, he’d send him an email, then a text, then try to reach him on Slack and all of the other social networking tools the company has adopted in the last 20 years. And Bill would know if Peter is online because he can check Peter’s status online to identify how long ago he moved his cursor. If Peter managed to evade Bill at the office, Bill wouldn’t leave a voicemail (because no one leaves voicemails anymore). Instead, he’d ping him on all of his personal social media accounts and watch to see when he checked in at Chotchke’s. But Peter wouldn’t have time to work on Sunday anyway since spends the weekend driving for Uber and Lyft for extra income.
Thankfully, by 2019 Initech, has phased out TPS Reports in favor of real-time dashboards and a paperless office (which also reduced the likelihood of workplace violence by eliminating printers). This is a welcome relief for Peter, who always struggled to remember the cover sheet. Unfortunately, Initech has embraced a matrix organizational structure, so he still has 8 different bosses and spends most of his day answering the same questions from each of his “dotted line” managers. Monday mornings are quite busy for Peter as he juggles attending 8 different stand-up huddles for his 8 different managers. Initech’s transition to a matrix organizational structure has been a struggle because they did not incorporate change management best practices or train the managers throughout the transition.
On the bright side, Initech has learned that their employees need to feel a sense of purpose and meaning beyond just a paycheck. The executive team has created and communicated a compelling vision that ensures employees see the impact they make on the world outside of the number of widgets shipped per month. Additionally, the HR team has abandoned Hawaiian shirt day in favor of corporate wellness days where they pass out pedometers to everyone. They still have cake to celebrate birthdays, though.
Additionally, Initech’s consulting team has instituted pulse surveys to measure engagement and motivation. They also incorporated sophisticated AI HR technology that tracks subtle changes in their employees’ activity on LinkedIn so they can identify high risk employees who have become disengaged.
What does it all mean? Organizations that fail to identify, hire, develop, and coach successful managers and leaders tend to spend more energy and resources on tools and technology to fix problems. Do the managers fail to communicate a vision? Ask everyone to use Slack more often. Are we failing to engage employees? Let’s institute technology to track engagement more often. Even though the saying “People don’t leave companies, they leave their managers” is universally embraced, organizations tend to try to fix their Bill Lumbergh problems with more technology.
While Bill Lumbergh was only a caricature of a micro-managing, monotone boss, there is truth to the humor. The disengagement, wasted resources, and threats to safety and security are real and must be solved by addressing the leadership side of the equation before focusing on the technology side.