During a global pandemic, when most people were stuck at home every day, all day, there was one TV show Americans couldn’t stop watching: “The Office.”
Viewers spent more than 57 billion minutes on Netflix binge-watching the sitcom’s paper company drones—more than any other show on any streaming service, according to figures released by Nielsen, prompting speculation that many work-from-home employees were suddenly, inexplicably, nostalgic for their cubicles and their co-workers.
Oh, please. It’s one thing to sit on the couch laughing at Michael and Dwight and Jim and Pam and another thing entirely to commute for an hour to sit in a cubicle.
Until last year, going to the office was an inevitable, immutable fact of life for millions. We loved it. We hated it. We loved and hated it. But the office was always there, the center of the American Dream, the ladder to success, the open plan with windows that never opened, overwatered ficus trees and desks where we spend approximately 90,000 hours of our lives.
Then came the lockdown and the realization that our offices and our jobs are not necessarily the same thing. Zoom became a lifeline and a verb. The commute was 10 feet; the dress code shirts (and, for the love of God, pants).
So the careful return to the traditional office has been met with an unprecedented amount of “Uhh, not so fast.” This, of course, is the privilege of those who have options, unlike many essential workers who bore the brunt of the pandemic. But white-collar employees once at the mercy of corporate overlords have expressed an overwhelming preference for something other than the 9-to-5, 40-hour office of the past.
A Gallup poll taken between October and April found that 40% of white-collar workers would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible, while 21% would rather return to the office (and 29% were not working remotely, while the rest didn’t want to go back because of coronavirus concerns).
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers, and plenty more are reportedly considering leaving without the promise of some remote options. Employers who insist in-person work is necessary for collaboration and innovation have no data to back up that claim, reports the New York Times. And while measuring productivity can be maddeningly subjective, some argue it has remained stable or even increased in 2020.
“What happened is the entire illusion that you had to go into the office has been shattered,” explained Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert,” the iconic comic strip on office life. What was once a given—say, the commute—is now a deliberation.
“Dilbert” fans have never been shy about telling Adams everything they can’t stand about the workplace. “It would be the guy or the woman who stops by the desk to chat,” he said. “Then there are the noises from the other cubicles: The fingernail-clipping guy, the throat-clearing guy, the guy who’s talking on the speakerphone. The smells from the microwave. If I say, ‘What’s bothering you?’ I’ll get those every time.”
But here’s the weird thing he noticed: Ask an office worker “How was your day?” and they’ll say it was terrible. The boss was a pain, their co-workers annoying, the air-conditioning blasting at Arctic levels. “But if you say, ‘Do you like your job?’ they’ll say, ‘Oh, I love my job!'” said Adams. “People always say they like their job even if they complain about it.”
The pandemic has brought this culture of kvetching to an abrupt head. Now we can actually do something about it. Now we can ask: Do we hate the office enough to never go back?
“The death of the office has been foretold a hundred times,” said Gideon Haigh, an Australian writer who wrote the definitive “The Office: A Hard-Working History” and the sequel “The Momentous, Uneventful Day: A Requiem for the Office,” on how the pandemic could change work life.
Anywhere there was a bureaucracy—the need to record and document information—there was something that looked like an office, dating back to the ancient Romans, who gave us the word “officium.” The idea of public working spaces fell out of favor for centuries—most merchants conducted business at home, often above their shops. There were a few exceptions: Medieval monks used dedicated spaces to copy manuscripts, and the Medici family originally created Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, now the world famous museum, for their vast business empire.
Offices moved to counting houses adjacent to the factories, and then into the heart of the city. “When bosses wanted to separate themselves from their hot, smelly and slightly vulgar enterprises for social and class reasons, we got the idea of the Central Business District office block,” explained Haigh. “But we inherited from the factory two irons laws: The law of synchrony, which is the necessity of working at the same time, and co-location, the idea of everyone in the same place as everyone else.”
The modern office building dates to 1729 when the East India Co. built its massive London headquarters for clerks to keep track of the company’s global shipping and trades. Writer Charles Lamb worked there for 33 years, and complained that “I grow ominously tired of official confinement. Thirty years have I served the Philistines, and my neck is not subdued to the yoke.”
Office work was considered somewhat emasculating as compared with physical labor. It took women—once confined to teaching or nursing—entering the same space in the early 20th century to elevate respect for white-collar men. “The office became the first workspace where men and women worked in parallel and in proximity, which is why I’ve always thought the office revolution is at least on par with the Industrial Revolution,” said Haigh.
Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the open plan office in 1906 with the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, which eventually led us to the infamous cubicle, which packed more and more people to work in less and less space.
Pennsylvania state senator Nikil Saval’s “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” gestured at a future of remote work back in 2014, he said, which caused a “modest controversy” as many argued workers need the office for its “serendipitous interactions.” The book came out just as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer insisted her employees must work in the office.
Years later, when Saval worked in his basement during the pandemic, he realized he missed being physically around co-workers sometimes. “Being completely bereft of that working environment that has basically been relatively consistent for generations—it’s hard to move to a completely different model without some costs.”
And so the dilemma: We like some things about the office, but we dread so much more. “Underlying office work has always been a sense that it’s a bit dehumanizing and a bit degrading and a bit diminishing,” said Haigh. “And I think office workers eventually internalized that.”
“The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open, that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who, in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1843. Ebenezer Scrooge was the original heartless boss; Bob Cratchit the mistreated worker who suffered in silence.
The office is both a physical place and a cultural construct: We see different depictions before we’re old enough to actually work. On screen, the workplace could be witty and playful (“Desk Set”), or backstabbing and dehumanizing (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”) The most memorable office stories reveal our love-hate relationship with the place. They suck us in with a fantasy—the first job, the cute co-worker in the elevator, the corner office, the beginning of so much ambition and possibilities—and show us the soul-crushing dark side.
The revenge comedy “9 to 5” from 1980 is one of the most beloved movies of all time, thanks to Dolly Parton’s anthem for every exploited worker and the three heroines who prevail against their sexist boss and create a Utopian office with equal pay, flexible hours and grateful corporate executives.
The 1988 Cinderella story “Working Girl”—where a Staten Island secretary with a “head for business and a bod for sin” improbably becomes a junior executive—was a hit precisely because it was inspirational and wildly unrealistic, with barriers like class and sexist men played for laughs. Billed as a feel-good, you-go-girl office comedy, the movie ended so neatly that it glossed over many of the real struggles business women faced in that era.
“Mad Men”—a sexy, sleek throwback to the advertising world of the 1950s and 1960s—was celebrated for the nostalgic cocktails, mid-century sophistication and frank portrayal of workplace sexism. The characters were deeply flawed but they were also talented, successful and rich. The underlying message: The office was the place where dreams come true, where questionable ethics can be excused wherever clever people spin ambition into gold.
Which brings us back to the “The Office.” Why did Americans make it the go-to comedy of the pandemic? Yes, it was funny, and yes, it was relatable. But it, too, was a fantasy wrapped in plain brown paper: A goofy but ultimately good boss who genuinely cares about his employees. Eccentric but decent co-workers who, at the end of the day, think of each other as family.
“To me, ‘The Office’ belongs to such a specific period of time and that period of time is ‘before,'” journalist Libby Hill was quoted as saying in Vox’s history of the show last year. She found it comforting because it “took place in an almost impenetrable bubble. Blundering bosses used to have hearts of gold and wanted the best for you. That’s not our reality. But it was once. And we hope it will be again.”
What happens to the office next?
“That will depend largely on the power balance between worker and boss,” said Adams. “In Silicon Valley, employees have more clout. So if you’ve got a good programmer, you let them work at home if that’s what they insist on. But let’s say you’re just some vague, nameless Fortune 500 company department—maybe you want your little empire to come to work so you can watch them.”
JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon has said remote workers will “dramatically undermine” the company’s workplace by eliminating spontaneous interaction and creativity. WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani said the “most engaged employees” want to be in a workspace; the “least engaged” (you know who you are, slackers) prefer to stay home. Other CEOs have already announced liberal WFH policies. There are so many variables that it’s difficult to predict how and why any employee thrives or falters.
The post-pandemic takeaway: One office size no longer fits all. “I think people are going to say it totally made sense to go to the office before,” said Adams, “And it totally makes sense not to do it now.”
Roxanne Roberts is a reporter covering Washington’s social, political and philanthropic power brokers. She has been at The Washington Post since 1988, working for the Style section as a feature writer and columnist. The Washington Post’s Dan Zak contributed to this report.