Organizational Practices in Office Space
"Sounds like somebody's got a case of the Mondays..."
The movie Office Space, directed by Mike Judge in 1999,examines and critiques various organizational practices in our society. In Office Space, the main character, Peter, works at Initech, a software company. His job consists of sitting in a cubicle crunching numbers all day long, which is enough to make anyone go crazy. Office Space traces the course of his realization that he despises his job and should rebel against it. Office Space depicts an oppressing, unsatisfactory view of the working world in an attempt to demonstrate unhealthy and ineffective practices that many businesses and organizations utilize. While many elements in Office Space are absurd and exaggerated, many ring true with experiences shared by anyone who has worked in a classically-managed organization. By presenting the daily horrors that such organizations can create, the film serves as a model of what a successful organization ought to avoid.
Office Space depicts many practices that are associated with the classical approach to organizations. According to Katherine Miller’s Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes, classical theory involves specialization, standardization, replaceability, and predictability. The machine metaphor is commonly applied to classical organizations, because the workers “are seen as the ‘cogs’ of the machine, and those cogs are standardized and interchangeable” (Miller, 4). Individuals do not matter in a classical organization. Miller examines different theories of classical management and describes classical organizations as having a clearly defined hierarchy, centralized power, and a strict emphasis on rules. Furthermore, communication comes from the top-down, is focused on work-related issues, and is generally written. Those at the top of the hierarchy are primarily concerned with getting the job done and are not concerned with individual employee needs. Employees “are encouraged to labor strictly for the goals of the organization rather than for their individual interests” (Miller, 9).
In Office Space, one can see all of these classical elements in practice. Power is extremely centralized at Initech with Bill Lumbergh at the top of the ladder. He is a greedy, overbearing authoritarian and abuses his power in many ways – he has his own reserved parking spot right in front of the building, he forces Peter to come in to work on the weekends, and he is very condescending to his employees. Others in high positions within the company are also condescending. For example, when Peter forgets to put coversheets on his TBS reports, Lumbergh and a couple of his other bosses talk to him like he is stupid, asking if he “got the memo.” The memo represents the formal, written mode of communication that classical organizations use. Communication, like authority, comes from the top-down, and any communicative misunderstanding is seen as the worker’s fault, in this case Peter’s. Those in higher positions at Initech do not see the workers as individuals who are worth knowing. When Nina hands out papers to everyone, she cannot pronounce Peter’s friend Samir’s name, which shows that those higher up in the company have not made an effort to know the lower workers, even when it comes to something as basic as name pronunciation. Having people constantly mispronounce his name, Samir does not feel like a valued part of the organization. In accordance with the machine metaphor, he is simply viewed as a disposable part, no different from anyone else at the office. Individuals do not matter at Initech, which is most plainly seen by the banner hanging in the office which reads “Is this good for the company?” which employees must ask themselves before making any decisions. Initech values efficiency more than anything else and even brings in outside consultants to help make the company more efficient. The classical notion of replaceability is evident in the film. The outside consultants, Bob and Bob, evaluate worker productivity, which results in the firing of many workers, including Peter’s friends Michael and Samir. The consultants explain that they are bringing in entry-level workers from Singapore to replace them, which indicates that anyone, even recent college graduates, can perform the job. Workers at Initech are simply interchangeable cogs in a machine.
In addition to the classical approach, Miller examines other organizational approaches that have resulted from criticisms of classical management, such as the human relations approach and the human resources approach, which both value the individual workers. Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory analyzes different workplace characteristics that lead to happiness and satisfaction. In order for a worker to be both happy and satisfied with their job, certain motivating qualities must be present, such as “responsibility, achievement, recognition, challenging work, and advancement in the organization.” Herzberg also includes physical aspects, such as “physical working conditions, salary, benefits, company policy, and the technical quality of supervision” (Miller 32-33). If both sets of characteristics are present, then workers are happy and satisfied. If they are absent, workers are unhappy and unsatisfied. Most of these characteristics are absent at Initech, which suggests that Initech workers are neither happy nor satisfied with their jobs. The primary reason they are unhappy and dissatisfied is lack of motivation. Peter tells the Bobs, “If I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. So where’s the motivation?”
Because workers at Initech do not receive good benefits or see the profit of their hard work, they do not feel achievement or recognition. Their work is not challenging which, in turn, makes it uninteresting. Furthermore, Initech employees have no means for self-actualization. They are not encouraged or allowed to reach their full potential, which is the most important workplace need according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory (Miller, 30). Employees at Initech are required to do only the bare minimum to get the job done. When the consultants, Bob and Bob, meet with all of the employees, many of them cannot even explain what their job entails. When Tom tries to explain his job, he reveals that most of his “customer interaction” takes place via the fax machine or his secretary. Peter tells them that he only works fifteen minutes out of the day, while the rest is spent staring blankly at the computer screen. The only thing that motivates him to do his job is to stay in the good graces of the upper management, who would otherwise make his life difficult. Peter tells the Bobs, “When I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my real motivation, is not to be hassled.” The employees’ concerns are completely disregarded. Lumbergh ignores Milton’s adamant protests about having to constantly move desks and about taking his prized stapler away. The lack of concern that Lumbergh and the other higher-ups have for their employees is constantly reinforced in the film.
The physical working conditions of Initech also lack the qualities that would make working there enjoyable and satisfying. The employees work in tiny cubicles that block their view of the windows, representing the closed system technique of eliminating outside distractions. The copy machine never works, their supplies (i.e. the staplers) are constantly being replaced with lesser-quality brands, and poor Milton is repeatedly forced to move desks, eventually ending up in the basement alongside the cockroaches. Furthermore, the cubicles are compacted together, so everyone is at the mercy of everyone else’s noisiness. Anyone would be unhappy working in these conditions. As Peter states, “Human beings weren't meant to sit in little cubicles, starring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” It is not surprising that Peter would decide to stop coming to work. He tells the hypnotherapist that his girlfriend makes him go to, “Ever since I started working, every day of my life has been worse than the day before it.”
Initech operates according to McGregor’s Theory X. In this theory, managers see their workers as unmotivated, unintelligent, and in need of strong direction from upper management. In McGregor’s Theory Y, on the other hand, managers see their workers as highly motivated and responsible and therefore do not need strong direction (Miller, 34-35). Theory X correlates to the classical approach to management, while Theory Y correlates to the human relations approach and is, therefore, more desirable in the workplace. However, advocates of the human resources approach criticize the human relations approach because it often can be misused. As Miller indicates, “a manager who holds Theory X assumptions (e.g., that workers are inherently lazy and stupid) might adopt some superficial Theory Y behaviors in an effort to gain control over the workforce” (Miller, 50). Office Space illustrates how managers can attempt to placate their workers with “fun” human relations activities. Lumbergh designates Friday as “Hawaiian Shirt Day,” allowing the workers to wear Hawaiian shirts and jeans in place of their typical business attire. He also holds a birthday party in the office (for himself of course) and lets all the workers take a break to have some cake, although there are not enough pieces for everyone. Lumbergh and the other higher-ups act concerned for the employees and feign cheerful expressions, but one can easily see through this charade. Lumbergh’s motivation behind these actions is pathetic and completely insincere.
Furthermore, Initech does not operate in an ethical manner. Rather than engaging in dialogic communication, which is “open and centralized . . . [and] values the perspective of all employees and facilitates their ability to voice their opinions and concerns” (May, 38), Initech operates using monologic communication. This form of communication “limits candor, fosters secrecy, and manages communication and information in a top-down manner” (May, 39). In monologic communication, communication is highly centralized, and workers never know nor understand decisions that are made by those in authoritative positions. May sees this practice as unethical because decisions are hidden from the employees. Initech makes all of its decisions without the knowledge or input from its workers. For example, the consultants, Bob and Bob, discover that Milton was laid off five years ago but no one ever told him. He thinks that he still works at Initech because he is still getting paid due to a glitch in the payroll. The Bobs fix the payroll problem so that Milton will no longer be paid. However, they refuse to actually tell him that he has been fired. Instead, they plan to let him make the connection that because he is no longer getting his paycheck, then he must have been laid off. One of the Bobs states, “We always like to avoid confrontation whenever possible.” This approach to firing employees is completely unethical. The Bobs even laugh and joke about the various employees that they are “letting go,” illustrating once again the lack of care or concern they have for these workers. Furthermore, the lack of disclosure creates a lot of paranoia among the employees. Many of them constantly fear that they will be fired. This fear is not unfounded due to the constant changes that take place within the company. As May points out, “the old social contract, which guaranteed or implied lifetime employment in exchange for employee competence and good behavior, has expired” (May, 20). No matter how good of a job Initech employees do, there is no assurance that they will keep their jobs. One of the workers in the film, Tom, is especially worried that he will be fired. At one point, Michael says to him, “Tom, every week you say you’re losing your job and you’re still here.” While he does ultimately lose his job, the paranoia he feels up until that point causes undue stress in his life which prevents him from performing well. Furthermore, when he is finally fired, he tries to kill himself, which illustrates the unhealthy nature of Initech’s environment.
Due to the inadequacies of various approaches to organizational management, some theorists have proposed a more critical approach. These theorists “believe that certain societal structures and processes lead to fundamental imbalances of power [and] these imbalances of power lead to alienation and oppression for certain social classes and groups” (Miller, 121). Once these workers became aware of their oppression, they seek to emancipate themselves by whatever means possible. In Office Space, Peter realizes that he and the other employees are being treated unfairly and he organizes a revolution. In a powerful act of defiance, he knocks down his cubicle wall so he can see out the window. He stops coming in to work and even plans to siphon money from Initech along with Michael and Samir so they will become rich and no longer have to work for the “evil corporation.” Milton takes a different approach and burns the building down, thus emancipating everyone from the terrors of Initech. While this is an extreme act, it symbolizes the disastrous results that come from oppressing one’s workers and not feeling concern for their well-being.
Initech is not the only organization in Office Space that oppresses its employees to the point of breakdown. Joanna, Peter’s love interest in the film, is a waitress at Chotchkie’s, which is similar to a TGIFriday’s or an Applebee’s. As part of her official uniform, she is required to wear at least fifteen “pieces of flair,” or buttons, on her suspenders. Joanna wears the minimum quota of fifteen because she thinks the idea is “quite stupid actually.” Her boss, Stan, criticizes her for wearing only the bare minimum, asking her why she cannot be more like one the other workers Brian, who “has thirty-seven pieces of flair and a great smile.” When Joanna asks Stan if he wants her to wear more flair, he condescendingly responds, “Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don't you?” Stan seems to think that the waiters and waitresses should love wearing flair because “it’s about fun.” However, Joanna views it as an unwanted force and an infringement on her personal expression. Later in the movie, Stan approaches Joanna again about wearing the bare minimum, demonstrating that he does not value her personal expression unless it correlates with the restaurant’s views. Joanna finally snaps and gives him the finger, shouting, “There’s my flair! And this is me expressing myself! There it is! I hate this job . . . and I don’t need it!” Like Peter and the others at Initech, Joanna realizes that she has been working in an oppressive environment in which her needs have gone unmet. Therefore, she emancipates herself from this oppressing work environment and gets a new job at Flinger’s, a nicer version of Chotchkie’s. Joanna’s experience in the film illustrates that all organizations are susceptible to poor management. A restaurant is no different from a large corporation when it comes to the treatment of employees.
The various characters in Office Space represent various stereotypes one finds in the workplace. Like the storyline of the film, these characters are both simplified and exaggerated in order to effectively convey the characteristics that can result from classical management of an organization. Lumbergh represents the greedy boss who is obsessed with rules and exerts his authority whenever possible. His droning voice represents the apathy he feels towards the employees. Bob and Bob represent the typical outside consultants that often come in to overhaul a corporation. Because they are from the outside, they have little concern for the employees or for proper business etiquette. Therefore, they have no qualms about firing various employees and even get a laugh out of doing it. Milton represents the quintessential despondent worker who is constantly ignored and is therefore left to mumble to himself about his stapler. Tom represents the paranoid worker who is constantly afraid of being fired. Michael and Samir represent classic software engineers that can easily be replaced. They both dislike their jobs but accept their lot in life. When Initech burns down, they both go to work at Initrode, a software company exactly like Initech. Peter is possibly the only dynamic character in the film. He represents the average worker who hates his job but puts up with it until the realization hits him that he can do whatever he wants. If he does not want to be in an unhappy job, then he can get himself out of it, which he does.
The ideal organizational approaches are: high concern for employee satisfaction and the value of employee input, decentralization of authority and communication, team management, and ethical practices. Office Space does not portray any of these methods, which indicates that Initech is not a good company. It is certainly not the type of company that I would want to work for. The employees are so dissatisfied that they must resort to extreme measures such as stealing money or burning down the company building. Honestly, I cannot say that I blame any of them. Office Space is a great vehicle for examining organizational techniques that ultimately lead to the disintegration of the organization. Office Space may exaggerate the conditions of a classical organization, but the message is still very applicable. All managers should watch this movie as an example of what to avoid in the workplace.
May, Steve, ed. Case Studies in Organizational Communication: Ethical Perspectives and Practices. London: Sage Publications, 2006.
Miller, Katherine. Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes, FourthEdition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2006.