Will Office Dramas and Workplace Fiction Become a Thing of the Past?
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Working from home during the lockdown period has thrown on the spotlight on the changing dynamics between the work colleagues and has prompted speculation on the evolution of the corporate drama.
Earlier in May, Twitter announced that it would allow its employees to work from home “forever”. Facebook followed suit with Zuckerberg stating that within a decade as many as half of the company’s more than 48,000 employees would work from home. He added, “Coming out of this period, I expect that remote work is going to be a growing trend as well.”
If WFH becomes the new normal, then how would the traditional office politics play out? Gone would be the gossip by the water cooler, the banter in the washroom, the accidental “running into” someone in the corridor, the eavesdropping by the cubicle. And certainly gone would be the wonderful representations of such practices in movies and literature.
In the fictional story The Moors written by Ben Marcus, we get to hear the mind talk of the protagonist Thomas as he walks behind his colleague on the way to the coffee machine. Here is a brief excerpt:
“Thomas and the colleague had been refilling their coffees at the same time because he had failed to calibrate his advance on the self-service beverage cart. Thomas’ mistake, like nearly all of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that. Avoidable, avoidable, avoidable. After all, he had seen the colleague approaching, a tumorous, hand-painted mug dangling from her finger.”
There is another delightful depiction of life in a cube farm from the fictional novel “Then We Came to the End” written by Joshua Ferris.
“In those days, it wasn’t rare for someone to push someone else down the hall really fast in a swivel chair. Games aside, we spent most of our time inside long silent pauses as we bent over our individual desks, working on some task at hand, lost to it – until Benny, bored, came and stood in the doorway. “What are you upto?”, he’d ask. It could have been any of us. “Working” was the usual reply. Then Benny would tap his topaz class ring on the doorway and drift away.”
On screen, movies like Office Space, Boiler Room, The Intern and TV series like The Office have celebrated the guile, ruthlessness, creativity, silliness and banality of the workplace. But if people work from a distance, then surely such portrayals will get consigned to the past. Possibly they will be replaced by scenes of children interrupting their parents’ online meeting calls, harrowed individuals trying desperately to drown out voices of other family members or roommates as they discuss important commercial matters with their superiors and entrepreneurs pushing away clingy pets while negotiating the next fundraise with potential investors. Some of the recent TikTok videos posted with the ‘workfromhome’ hashtag provide a preview of what to expect.
This leads us to wonder how effective work will be under the new regime. How will relationships develop and bonds be forged among colleagues? Will gossip exchanged over virtual chats be as juicy and satisfying as the physical office natter? As tech giants like Facebook and Twitter promote WFH, I am reminded of the decision that the CEO of Yahoo Marrisa Mayer took nearly 7 years ago when she banned working from home for Yahoo staff. According to the company memo leaked to the press:
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”
So, whether WFH is permanent is yet to play out. And as its pros and cons are determined and the remote work culture unfolds, so will the illustrations of the same in print and on-screen. Perhaps at some point in the future, we would then turn to old office dramas and literature and wistfully sigh: “Once Upon a Time, we worked within a set of cubes called the Office.”