December 10, 2008

The Office

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you now, or have you ever worked in an office? If so, you might like watching The Office as much as I do. Aside from its quirky characters, faux documentary style and offbeat plot lines, The Office is a window into some sociological aspects of work.

When you work with people on a regular basis, they can become a sort of second family. Sometimes our coworkers see us more than family members do, and might even know more about us than some of our closest friends.

On The Office, the Steve Carell character, Michael, often refers to his staff as a family. Managers can go to a lot of trouble to help workers feel like part of a group, and of course this isn’t just so everyone makes new friends. If people have a sense of commitment to each other, rather than just to a paycheck, they might be more productive. That’s why companies spend untold amounts of money on office parties and retreats in order to promote a sense of cohesion. clip_image002

Coworkers can move from being people that we have to deal with on a limited basis in order to earn a living, to what sociologists call primary groups, or people who experience ongoing relationships with one another that can be very influential.

I worked in several offices before becoming a professor, and on several occasions my coworkers became my closest friends. Like the work at the fictitious Dunder Mifflin paper company on The Office, the work I did was often mundane and unfulfilling, and the mini-dramas of coworkers was the only thing that helped pass the time. In one office I worked at, I had three or four coworkers who were just as bored as I was, and we bonded over the absurdity of our daily tasks. We all worked in different areas of the office and had experiences with different aspects of the organization. One day, we thought it would be fun to all have lunch together and comment on our observations (okay, I really mean gossip).

We all became close friends, talking on the phone after work, meeting up for dinner, going to lunch together and hanging out on weekends. We developed code names for our coworkers (and ourselves) ranging from cartoon characters and Disney icons to infamous criminals and unique combinations of obscenities. One of my friends panicked when he couldn’t remember the actual name of a coworker with whom he had an upcoming meeting and called me on my extension to ask if I remembered her real name. Fortunately for him, I did.

If this all sounds immature and mean-spirited to you, I admit, it was. Just like on The Office, pettiness and gossip can dominate a day’s work when the job itself offers little mental stimulation (which is why I love being a professor now). This reflects Marx’s concept of alienation, or when workers feel little or no connection to their work. He originally described alienation as something that happened to people working in factories who saw little or no economic gain from the products they produced. We can certainly apply this idea to more contemporary forms of work, like selling things in a retail job but earning the same wage whether you sell $1 or $1,000 dollars worth of merchandise. With limited opportunity for workers to make unique contributions in their jobs, they might feel more like cogs in a machine than valued employees.

And yet some of the shenanigans featured in The Office also happen in places where people truly like their work and feel that their skills are being well used. I worked in one such office years ago, where most of the employees were well educated and had a significant amount of responsibility and autonomy. But much like in The Office, we had a supervisor who had a knack for irritating the employees, in particular by constantly reminding everyone of his superior position.

As occasionally happens on the sitcom, we had moments of bonding when our self-centered boss did something we found absurd. For instance, once the boss and I had a meeting and presentation with an important client. The boss let me know, in front of the client, that after the presentation I could leave because I was not invited to have lunch with them. When I told the others, they laughed at the unique ability of this person to look for opportunities to be rude. On a business trip a colleague and I ran into the boss in the hotel lobby with a client. Again, the boss told us that they would be having dinner and we would have to make other plans. My coworker and I looked at each other and laughed, knowing we’d all have a much better time without them there.

My office was located the furthest from the self-important bosses’ office, so coworkers would often come by to vent and laugh at some absurd interchange they just had with him. The boss once told me that my coworkers had complained that I “distracted them” too much and I should stop talking to them because they weren’t as productive as I was. I knew as he spoke that it was a lie, that my coworkers were friends outside of the office and they would never have gone to the boss they distrusted. But by blaming me for the quality of other people’s work, the boss could find an easy target. As work becomes central to who we are, our sense of self can become intertwined with our performance as workers and/or managers.

Having a bad job or obnoxious boss is no excuse to do bad work or to goof off on the clock. And yet as social beings, we look for ways to forge ties with our fellow workers. Some of these ties involve managing the stress of a dead-end job or domineering boss. Just as it is on The Office, sometimes what goes on at work is a way to pass the time that we have exchanged for a paycheck. As some occupations require people to work longer hours, relocate away from other friends and family, and as others delay marriage and child rearing for later years, the people at the office become even more important in our lives.


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I find this piece to be very interesting, also very true. Although I have never worked in an office position, I do watch the show 'The Office'. And I believe these statements made are completely true, people spend so much time at work around there co-workers they do start to become like family and you begin to pass the time by gossiping about other co workers or the boss and this leads to friendships between co workers. I also found it funny how in this peice she said something about the boss had heard complaints of people being distracted by her, that just makes me laugh because the boss thinks he is so high up there on the scale that everyone just adores and looks up to him, when in reality everyone is talking bad about him behind his back, which in most cases this is how bosses act. I really like this article and I'm going to continue watching the office thinking about these very things.

I liked this article, I thought it had many great points. She talks about people in a office becoming close becuase they spend so much time together. Its just like schooling you end up spending so much time with your classmates that you become friends with them also. Of course there is always that kid who thinks they are beter than anyone else, that is the boss in this case. I think 'The Ofiice' and 'School' are alot alike and I have obviosuly gone to school so thats why I can relate to this article so well. Besides going to school or your place of employment to work, its also a big social part of your life. I know that the next time I watch the office, I will be thinking about alot of the things that the author said.

I liked this article, the lady made many great points. She talks about people in a office becoming close because they spend so much time together. I feel that is true sometimes, it depends on the atmosphere of the job that you are working at and also the people that you are surrounded by. For example, its just like being in school you are in the same building with the same people for hours on end everyday and you have to be entertained some way so you end up spending so much time with your classmates that you become friends with them also. Like what she said about the boss thinking they are the best, there is also always that one or two kids in the group that thinks that they are better than everybody else. Even though i have never seen The Office, it sounds like it is a lot like school in its own ways. I have also worked in the work place kind of like the one in The Office, but it was a Plant where they make car parts, but you can tell the groups of people that hang out after work or talk to each other and you can tell who the people are that think that they are on top of the world and the best.

I completely agree with the points this article presented. From both a viewer of The Office and an unhappy employee, I can understand what the author is explaining. I have had two jobs with supervisors who let power get to their heads and ruin the work experience for the rest of the employees. As in the article, I became friends with many of my coworkers and we talked about how much we hated our job and our manager. The managers would boss everyone around and tell us to work harder, while he appeared to not be working hard, himself. It is very frustrating being told to do something by someone who will not do it themselves. They let the power get to their head and they think they can do whatever they want to whomever they want. I found myself slacking off whenever I could out of contempt for my boss. I thought, if I'm being treated poorly and not making much money, I shouldn't have to do much work. This article does a great job of explaining how a workplace functions and how the hierarchy of positions affects everyone.

I think that it is very interesting that you said you acted like the characters in the show Office. Right now in my Sociology class we talking about how televison effects children. They are looking more at how the violence in shows effects childrens behavior. When you talked about acting like the Office characters you made it seem ok (which in your way it was!) but children act like what they see on t.v. because they think it's ok to do so. Thanks for showing me that the media does affect peoples behavior, but that it isn't always bad!

I completely agree with this article and I think Karen makes a very good point when it comes to analyzing social bonds in the workplace. Currently we are learning about primary and secondary groups in my Sociology 101 class and in our book it points out that co-workers are usually placed in secondary groups. I strongly believe that depending on a group’s cohesion, co-workers can definitely be considered a primary group-only if they have face to face interaction daily, high levels of cooperation, and intense feelings of belonging. If you are working in a group environment where co-workers care for each other and work together, they will feel even more socially accepted and comfortable. I agree that some work places have extremely upscale holiday parties and gatherings throughout the year but only to emphasize the importance of a company’s social solidarity. Karen talks about the co-workers in The Office and claims that they have become a family unit and I couldn't agree more. I have watched this show many times and the way the characters interact with one another makes them seem like brothers and sisters-they fight well and get along well. Even the idea of family gossip was entertaining to read and reflect upon. Not only do co-workers in this show sit around and gossip, but co-workers around the world do the exact same thing and may not realize the primary group bonds they are beginning to form. This sense of social solidarity allows social networks to become even stronger by sharing their feelings, opinions, and experiences. The next time I watch the office I will definitely pay close attention to the co-workers and the specific ways certain characters form social bonds within their workplace.

I really like the way Karen Sternheimer addressed how secondary groups can turn into our primary groups in this article. I have also personally have made some of the best relationships through at my workplace. Although, it is not in an office, those girls who were once in my secondary group are now in my primary good still to this day even though I do not work with each other anymore. I believe this also could go for people in my sociology class. At first, all of them were in my secondary group, a large group that all share one specific temporary goal (to do well in the class). As time went on, I actually met up with others, texted, studied together and became friends. They are now in my primary group, who I share relationships with and have face to face interactions with them. I believe that there are many of these kinds of groups hidden throughout our day, not just in an office.

I agree with this article, and like me I am working in office and I spend much time with my office mates thats why we were very close to each other.

Margarette Smith

I found this article to be very interesting. I have never worked in an office setting, but I am an avid viewer of "The Office". I think that while the office is a place of work, it should also be a comfortable environment so you can do your work with ease. In the movie "He's Just Not That Into You" some of the female characters work together in an office environment and they always begin the day with a good chat about their personal lives. I do not know if they were friends before working together, or if they became friends because of working in the same office, but I believe being friendly with your coworkers is a positive thing. It can take away from the stress of working in an office.

Office culture plays a big role in the productivity of the company. If each department has camaraderie it will always hit the mark, especially if their boss is very good in motivating them. And because of the "good vibes" custom everyone will be comfortable to each other and to work with each other which will gradually result to a highly efficient work force or manpower to achieve their goals.

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