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Lessons From The Cubicle Farm

Many workers’ expectations are a function of popular culture. Here’s how you can relate.

Movies have the power to fundamentally impact our views on almost any aspect of life, including working in the material handling industry. For instance, Animal House changed how everyone perceived fraternities forever. To this day, golfers still quote lines from Caddyshack. No matter how much my parents wax nostalgic about their teen years, Grease and American Graffiti are how I’ve come to view the 1950s. A few years ago, the owner of a Turkish travel agency told me that the movie Midnight Express—the story of a young American drug smuggler locked up in a horrific Turkish prison—still shows up as a prevalent reason why Americans say they would be less than likely to ever visit Turkey.

Despite all having been released more than 25 years ago, these movies have had a tremendous impact on our collective psyches. Movies create perceptions, and perceptions become realities.

At the close of the millennium, another movie came out that I predict will have an equally profound impact upon your reality (whether you know it now or not). Office Space has come to define the modern workplace.

Office Space – The Movie
Young software engineer Peter Gibbons works for Initech, a generic company that could be based in any suburban office park in America. Peter hates his job almost as much as his co-workers do. From the Indian-American Samir Nagheenanajar, who complains that nobody ever pronounces his name properly, to the middle-aged mumbler Milton, who was laid off years ago but was never informed, these hapless souls struggle to survive in a hierarchal hell.

The tag line for Office Space was “Work Sucks.” That’s today’s stark perception, and therefore reality, in many organizations.

Peter’s greatest source of frustration is Bill Lumbergh, a passive-aggressive, white-collar middle manager who mindlessly speaks at Peter, not with him. The plot thickens with the introduction of two outside consultants known as “The Bobs,” brought in to right-size Initech. For Peter and his associates, this means that their jobs are clearly in jeopardy.

Office Space featured Jennifer Anniston, star of TV megahit Friends, and was directed by Mike Judge, who had previously scored big with animated TV comedies Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. Despite all this momentum, the movie barely made a blip at the box office, narrowly recouping its modest $10 million budget.

But this was the little comedy that could. Thanks to snowballing word of mouth and relentless TV airings, it took on a life of its own. It eventually sold over six million copies on video and is still going strong. It is now among the best-selling 20th Century Fox DVDs of all time. It still airs so often on basic cable channels that you can catch it almost anytime. Imagine how frequently you stumble upon It’s a Wonderful Life airings during the holidays; Office Space is like that, except year-round.

What It All Means
Office Space‘s impact on today’s pop culture is enormous. The term “TPS report” has become synonymous with mindless paperwork in offices everywhere. “Going Office Space” on something is now a popular term referring to the lead characters’ ceremonious destruction of a constantly malfunctioning copy machine. The real-world company Swingline had not sold a red stapler (a prominent plot device in the movie) for years, but the company reintroduced the color as the movie’s popularity grew and red stapler demand spiked.

Office Space DVDIn hindsight, it’s easy now to see why Office Space became what Entertainment Weekly has called a “stealth blockbuster.” It has hit a nerve with today’s young work force. The movie was purposely shot in a style that conveyed a soul-sucking, dehumanizing environment. To me, the overall feel of the film is a combination of two other decades-old classics—2001: A Space Odyssey and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While at one level Office Space works as a standard farce, themes of alienation and helplessness can be found in all three films. Even the antiseptic space is part of the story: the lighting is artificial and so is the overall environment. As each movie unfolds, the characters behave increasingly more like rats trapped in a cage.

The “bad guy” in these films isn’t a ranting, raving tyrant. Instead, it is the infuriatingly calm and seemingly rational voice of reason that pushes our protagonists to the edge. The inauthentic, superficial Lumbergh uses the same lilting, condescending tone as Space Odyssey‘s HAL the computer and Cuckoo’s Nest‘s Nurse Ratchett. For all three villains, their forced politeness and banal banter is far more frustrating than the more commonly portrayed screaming, red-faced boss. Lumbergh arrogantly ignores what his employees are telling him and just keeps repeating his mantras: “Yeah, did you get the memo?” and “Yeah, I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday.”

From the moment Peter enters Initech’s cube farm, it is eerily similar to an insane asylum or a soulless spaceship guided by a talking computer. Peter is no longer a person. He is an automaton that cranks out meaningless TPS reports. All of the work and the processes portrayed involve mind-numbing details. Whenever he tries to explain himself to superiors, he is met with a canned response straight from Mismanagement 301.

People laugh at Office Space because it’s only slightly more ludicrous than what they see around them. And it’s not just offices. People who work in warehouses, construction sites and retail shops can all relate to the familiar themes. If you are a leader who hasn’t watched this movie, I suggest you do it soon. It is a funny movie, but you’ll also come to better understand how many people, especially younger workers, feel about supervisors and work in general.

For an entire generation, this movie and the newer, similarly themed TV series The Office are their reality. (At the time of writing this article, the latest season of The Office was the best-selling DVD on Amazon.) This is what my teenage son expects to encounter when he goes to work in an organization: a place where your individuality gets subverted, your drive gets deflated, your co-workers are back-stabbing loons, and you report to a boss who only cares about pointless policies and procedures. This kind of work environment is perceived as the coal mine of the modern age; instead of black lung disease, you get black soul disease.

Growth leaders always find innovative ways to help individuals see that what they do really matters.

Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor estimate a shortage of skilled workers of 10 million by 2010 and as many as 35 million within the next 30 years. Our growing economy, retiring Baby Boomers and a shift to an information- and service-based economy are all contributing to the crisis. There’s an escalating war for talent and it’s only going to get worse. You can complain that “people just don’t know how to work anymore” or face the reality that, for skilled workers, it will be a seller’s market for the foreseeable future.

The tag line for Office Space was simple: “Work Sucks.” That’s today’s stark perception, and therefore reality, in many organizations. Don’t let yours be one of them. While managers keep telling today’s workers to “think outside the box,” they keep sticking them in cubicles. I’m not calling for the literal plowing under of the cube farm. Instead, I am suggesting that growth leaders always find innovative ways to help individuals see that what they do really matters.

In his 1974 book Working, Studs Turkel wrote, “Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread. For recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Winning the talent wars in the material handling industry, or any other industry, will increasingly be about meeting the needs of the changing work force. In order to grow our organizations, we all must recognize that people now expect to make a life, not just a living.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

Steven S. Little Meet the Author
Steven S. Little is a speaker, writer and consultant located in Wilmington, North Carolina, and on the Web at www.stevenslittle.com.

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