20 Business Lessons We Can Learn from ‘Office Space’ 20 Years Later
On February 19, 1999, Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space hit theaters. Loved for its satirical insights into everyday life within a corporate office, the film follows the monotonous routine of Peter Gibbons and his quirky friends, uninspiring bosses, and eccentric coworkers within the context of a fictional 1990’s software company called Initech. Despite changes in technology, management strategies, and workplace dynamics in general, the film has aged well over the years, and it still provides a comical lens into the experiences we encounter in our own working lives.
Today, Office Space turns 20 years old. To commemorate the anniversary of a film that has shaped my career in more ways than one, we’ll be taking a look at 20 workplace lessons that can be pulled from Office Space that remain relevant even 20 years later. Mmmkay?
1) Focus on the activities that matter
The workplace is full of reactive situations and menial tasks that can make us feel like we’re getting work done, but ultimately don’t contribute to achieving our goals. Everyone from people managers to individual contributors should be focusing on work the moves the needle forward, often times important but non-urgent tasks that contribute to long-term personal and organizational growth. In the case of Office Space’s primary antagonist — Divisional VP and loathsome corporate archetype Bill Lumbergh — his overly-particular focus on TPS report cover sheets is a perfect example of getting a bit too caught up in low priority activities.
2) Avoid micromanaging
Empowering your teams with the autonomy to get the job done is a tried-and-true approach to getting results. Peering over their shoulder and directing their every move is not. The layers and layers of bosses at Initech not only demonstrate what micromanaging is, but how it demotivates employees from putting forth their best efforts (or any efforts at all).
3) Establish and communicate a clear vision
…and make sure it’s one that your team can get on board with! In addition to empowering team members, setting a vision that people can align their actions with ensures that the right activities take place. Companies like FedEx are famous for mission statements that everyone in the company can recite and act upon (in FedEx’s case, it’s their customer-centric “Purple Promise”). In the case of Initech, asking yourself “Is this good for the company?” is vague, uninspiring, and in turn difficult to follow.
4) Build a culture that’s more than just Hawaiian Shirt Day
With a vision in-place, it’s much easier for a strong culture to follow. Take a look at the culture at Apple resulting from a Jobs-ian vision that’s remained in place even years after his death. Anyone at Apple still sees their role as challenging the world’s status quo by designing beautiful products that seek to change the norms of yesterday for a better tomorrow. Culture is what gets people up and excited to go to work, not the freedom to wear tropical attire and jeans on a Friday…especially now that most tech companies encourage you to wear whatever the heck you want any day of the week!
5) Protect your time
Unlike money and health, time is your most valuable resource because there’s nothing you can do to get it back. Peter demonstrates a keen understanding of this as he seeks to escape the office on a Friday before Bill Lumbergh asks him to come in to work on the weekend. Inversely, Bill demonstrates a complete lack of respect for time by hitting Peter with this request at 4:45pm on Friday, which brings us to our next lesson…
6) Take time to disconnect
Whether you love your job or not, it’s important to take time to remove yourself from your work. Turn off your phone. Take a weekend-long “social media hiatus.” Office Space was ahead of its time by demonstrating how to disconnect by ignoring your answering machine for an entire day!
7) Flair should be encouraged, but not a requirement
Your work should be something that you can infuse with your personality; your strengths, your creativity, and your style. However, much like having a “15 pieces of flair” requirement, “forced creativity” can backfire and have the opposite effect.
Don’t metric flair. Create an environment that allows employees to blossom naturally.
8) Take risks
Whether you’re at a startup where risks are the norm or working for a large company (even one that seems risk-averse), you need to be courageous to move forward in your career and find ways to help your company capitalize on new opportunities. Having a tough conversation with a coworking, manager, or even someone in the C-suite can seem like an intimidating situation, but if you say what needs to be said in a well-intentioned way, you’ll be far more valuable than a “yes-woman” or “yes-man.” When Peter meets with “The Bobs” — the consultants that Initech has hired to help restructure their organization (i.e. decide who to keep and who to let go) — he tells it like it is, and finds himself in line for an immediate promotion.
9) Address problems directly and quickly
After The Bobs discover that the mumbly-and-neurotic office drone Milton Waddams was actually let go by Initech years ago, but continues to receive a paycheck due to an accounting glitch, they “fixed the glitch” and suggest to management that they let the situation resolve itself naturally. “We always like to avoid confrontation whenever possible” is their solution, and this is exactly what not to do when it comes to any lingering issue. Whether it’s a performance issue, a conflict with a coworker, or a process that’s impacting productivity, these situations need to be talked about in a direct, sensible fashion before they become larger problems.
10) Create an energizing work environment that allows people to do their best work
Is your office or personal workspace an abundant space that allows you to get real work done? Gone are the days of cramped cubicles. Now, natural light, standing desks, and collaborative spaces are the norm, giving people the ability to work together to brainstorm the latest new idea, or buckle-down in a productivity-inducing solo space when it’s time to focus. But, back in 1999 when laptops and mobility had yet to become the norm, knocking down the wall to your cubicle was a pretty good solution.
11) Figure out what every employee’s “red stapler” is
This one’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s my article and we’ve just passed the halfway point, so why not?
Everyone has an intrinsic motivation that keeps them going and contributing. For Milton, that was his red Swingline stapler. For most people, it’s a bit more substantial. It’s a desire to learn new skills, advance in your career, or create the best product, process, or customer experience possible. Learn what that is for your peers and team members and help them achieve whatever it is that makes their work more fulfilling. It’s a great way to tap into a person’s highest potential. While a far-fetched example for the sake of satire, Milton demonstrates what can happen when you do the opposite:
12) Be a catalyst for change
Whether it’s a quick process improvement or a gradual shift in how you address your customers’ challenges, positive changes within an organization have to start somewhere. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend donning shorts and flip-flops or gutting a fish at your desk right out of the gate like Peter, recognize that you have the ability to personally impact your company’s culture. And, once you see that change slowly making its way across your organization, you might just think to yourself “Damn…it feels good to be a gangsta!” 😉
13) Treat everyone with dignity
It takes a lot of people to run a large organization, and every one of them deserves respect. “I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO” is a simple line that sums this point up perfectly. While it’s unlikely that you’ll literally end up in the basement like Milton, never take anyone within your organization for granted. Acknowledging and showing your appreciation for your coworkers is a great habit to ingrain in your work life. Great ideas and leadership come from every angle, and you never know who you’ll be working with (or reporting to!) down the line.
14) Give your ideas a shot
Not every idea is a winner. Tom Smykowski’s “Jump to Conclusions” mat was probably not going to go terribly far, but it’s better to try something new than to talk yourself out of it to begin with. Most people regret the things they didn’t do more than the things they did, and if you have an idea for a passion project, startup, or something that could contribute to your current company, take the steps to see it through and see if it takes off. Worst case scenario, you learn something from the experience.
15) Invest in resources that allow your teams to do their jobs effectively
If you’re not providing yourself or your team with the resources to get the job done, chances are, you’re waiting time and energy trying to solve problems that a quick investment could take care of. Whether we’re talking about digital tools, personnel, or the working space itself, recognize that time is money if the resources available are slowing things down. Sometimes it’s best to take the printer out back and go for an upgrade…
When Peter finds out that he’s getting promoted, but that his friends Samir and Michael are about to get let go, they put their skills together to…umm…“create a win-win-win for all of them” (I guess that’s the best way to put it). If you’re a manager, your role is to serve your team and prioritize their needs and success. While again, I wouldn’t recommend putting this lesson to practice in the context of creating a computer program for diverting fractions of pennies from the company to a personal bank account, you get the idea. Teamwork makes the dream work!
17) Make relationships a priority
The romance between Peter and Joanna throughout the film might not come across as a business lesson, but it helps put life in perspective outside of work. Peter admits to Joanna that he may never like his job, but if he could be with her he could be happy. No matter how much you love (or hate) your job, it’s important to keep that in check and make sure you’re investing in your personal life as well, be that a significant other, friends, family, or hobbies. Besides, it’s always good to have someone to watch Kung Fu (or Netflix) with.
18) Take the job you’ll enjoy the most
At the end of the film shortly after the incinerating demise of Initech, Peter takes a job working with his neighbor Lawrence’s construction company to clean up the mess. When Samir and Michael offer Peter an opportunity to work at a new software company with them, Peter politely declines because he’s enjoying the opportunity to work outside and get exercise.
While you don’t necessarily need to go from working in software to working in construction, life is too short to work in a job that you hate. Even if it means making a lateral move, taking a step back, or accepting a smaller paycheck, happiness and well-being take priority over money any day of the week if you’re making ends meet.
19) Use your vacation time
Especially in the US, it’s nice to see that the stigma against taking all of your vacation time is starting to wear off. Taking your vacation should ultimately benefit your company every time; it allows you to recharge and come back fresh, creative, and motivated. Whether you want to hang out on a beach drinking Mai Tais like Milton, go snowboarding in Japan like me, or do something totally different, enjoy your time off and come back excited to make an impact.
20) Never, ever say “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays.”
Thanks for reading! Do you have any takeaways from Office Space, or, maybe a favorite scene that I didn’t get to reference in this post? Share your thoughts in the comments below!