In 1999, a movie documented an everyday horror that many of us endure: our jobs. “Office Space,” a fictional comedy written and directed by Mike Judge, was a box office flop when it hit theaters 20 years ago last month, but has since become a cult film for skewering the drudgery and hypocrisies built into corporate America.
The film is set in the fluorescent, clinical grays of office life. It follows Peter Gibbons, a software company employee doing monotonous work and being managed by multiple bosses asking him the same questions and harping on inane details such as the proper way to print a report:
“When I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it,” Peter shares in a candid moment with management consultants. “That’s my only real motivation — is not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job, but y’know, Bob, it will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”
As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review for the Chicago-Sun Times, “Office cubicles are cells, supervisors are the wardens, and modern management theory is skewed to employ as many managers and as few workers as possible.”
After a hypnosis session goes wrong, Peter sleeps in, misses work, and wakes up, for once, happy. The hypnosis spell has finally given him permission to not prioritize the company he works for. And the comedy is in watching Peter lose his filter and share his thoughts about work out loud to colleagues who are increasingly convinced to follow his lead.
They are not the only ones who are taken in by Peter’s newfound freedom. Judge and Ron Livingston, the actor who plays Peter, have both said that fans have told them they were inspired by the film to change their careers and even quit their jobs.
“After seeing the movie, it gave them the confidence to get out of whatever it was they were doing that was making them miserable and move on to something else,” Livingston told Variety.
Underneath the jokes about annoying colleagues and malfunctioning printers are at least three enduring career lessons that still hold up.
We need to feel in charge of our careers.
Before his hypnosis, Peter is ruled by the moods and whims of others. He is thrown off by traffic in the morning. His Friday gets ruined if he runs into his boss before he leaves. But once he wakes up a new person, he gets the permission he needs to say no to what other people think he should prioritize, and puts himself first.
“We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth,” Peter urges his friend Michael. “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day.”
“The only thing that happens in the movie is he gives himself permission to do those things and to try to figure out what does make him happy,” Livingston said of Peter. “There’s something about that that’s timeless. It goes against everything we’re taught. ‘Don’t quit.’ ‘Make the best of a bad situation.’”
Having control over what we do with our days is proven to be a driving desire in our careers ― even more so than other temptations like titles and prestige. In a study of more than 2,000 people published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that the real power that participants wanted was not a fancier title, but the ability to choose how their days mostly went.
“Gaining autonomy quenches the desire for power, but gaining influence does not,” the researchers wrote. “People desire power not to be a master over others, but to be master of their own domain, to control their own fate.”
We want more privacy in the office.
In “Office Space,” Peter has partitions around his desk, but noise puts his colleagues right next to him. He is wedged between a woman who chirps “one moment please” repeatedly and a colleague named Milton who plays the radio at what he feels is a “reasonable volume.”
In real life, more offices have moved toward open-plan spaces without clear divisions between where one desk starts and ends. This was intended to break down the walls between workers and encourage collaboration. But employees actually need personal space to function. Open-plan layouts are known to make us less productive, and lack of sound privacy was the biggest frustration for employees in both cubicles and open-plan offices, according to a 2013 study.
But at least cubes had visual barriers.
“I’m doing a show [“Silicon Valley”] about the tech world. Now, they’ve gotten rid of cubicles,” Judge said last month. “They all brag about their open work space: ‘It’s all open.’ I think a lot of people want cubicles back. People want some privacy.”
Work does not have to be more than work.
People still confuse loving their job with loving their life. And that can be encouraged by fictional and real companies blurring the boundaries between what is good for us and and what is good for the company. At Peter’s fictional employer Initech, the company mandate literally held over everyone’s head in the form of a banner reads: “Is this good for the company?”
But no Hawaiian-shirt Fridays or other supposedly fun perks should make you forget that work is work.