The scenes that make The Office special aren’t overly zany but are extremely relatable, like Dwight Schrute making an obnoxious sales call at his desk, while Jim and Pam roll their eyes at their colleague’s behavior. It happens almost every episode: two people, the stand-ins for the audience, acknowledging just how annoying the workplace is.
The Office is a show about the random, boring bits of everyday work life and the comedy that ensues from being surrounded by the same people on a daily basis. Employees sit at their desks, jokes are made, and snacks are munched on. Fifteen years later, it’s still one of the most enduring sitcoms because The Office is an extraordinarily ordinary depiction of modern working life in America — well, it was.
How jobs look has shifted radically over the last decade. The coronavirus pandemic simply sped up the circumstances for many industries. The gig economy is one of the biggest notable transitions. Uber, Lyft, Fiverr, Amazon Flex, and Airbnb didn’t exist 15 years ago when The Office premiered. Now, there are more than 55 million gig economy workers in the United States, according to Forbes. That’s more than 55 million people who don’t go into an office every day and share a kitchen with co-workers. Their idea of day-to-day work is already different from what The Office presented.
How does a workplace comedy operate without a workplace?
Before the pandemic forced us inside, The Office was relatable. How does a workplace comedy operate without a workplace? Today, it feels like a piece of popular culture from eras past. Social distancing measures mean more people are working from home. Gags have shifted from pranking your deskmate to creating weird glitch art on Zoom using random anime backgrounds; hijinks in the shared kitchen turned into creating new Slack emoji to deliver a joke faster.
Even those who aren’t in gig economy jobs are facing a time when physical offices aren’t necessary for most companies. Instant communication tools like Slack make talking with co-workers possible from anywhere, remote work is easy to do with an assortment of productivity services. Michael Scott’s outbursts in The Office don’t transition well to Slack, where the equivalent is a message typed out in all-caps. That’s not as funny.
Videoconferencing has also never been easier. Services like Zoom allow remote workers to talk face-to-face, all from the safety and comfort of their own homes. In December 2019, Zoom saw heights of 10 million daily users — by March 2020, Zoom was hitting “more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid,” CEO Eric S. Yuan wrote in a blog post.
“We did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home,” Yuan wrote.
“We provide a platform that is going to become even more useful to the world in the years to come.”
Companies have transitioned quickly from operating in physical spaces to moving everything online. Zoom is hitting record-breaking numbers, as is Microsoft Teams, a group chat and collaboration tool from Microsoft that rivals Slack. Slack is no different. CEO Stewart Butterfield shared numbers in a lengthy tweet thread, noting that on Tuesday, March 10th, Slack’s concurrent users passed 10 million. That number jumped to 10.5 million just six days later, reaching 12.5 million on March 25th.
“We have an incredible business that has been growing very quickly and that will continue to do so for many, many years to come,” Butterfield told Slack employees, as seen in screenshots he tweeted. “We provide a platform that is going to become even more useful to the world in the years to come.”
This pandemic will forever change parts of our lives, much like the 1918 influenza did more than 100 years ago. A big part of that will be the physicality of work. “The age of the office as we know it is probably over, and the bell can’t be unrung,” Matt Burr, CEO at Nomadic Learning, wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently. More employees, once ready to commute into an office every day, will use tools like Slack and Zoom to work from home more often, according to Burr. Companies will see less of a reason to have physical space and will use remote advantages to build teams in different cities.
Work has changed, and television will follow. Pop culture has always reflected our lives at a certain moment in time. Similar to how we revisit The Dick Van Dyke Show or Growing Pains to scratch the nostalgic itch for times when families were corny and homely or marathoning shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother to reminisce about a time when people actually hung out, The Office yearns for simpler times. Actress Angela Kinsey (who played Angela Martin on the show) described the series as inexplicably comforting. That comfort comes from the normalcy of a work routine — something I’ve come to miss in the weeks I’ve been at home.
Now, many of us work from home
Less than 20 years ago, people worked in offices. Now, many of us work from home. Ben Silverman and Paul Lieberstein, co-producers on The Office, are developing a new workplace comedy, but this one won’t include characters like Dwight and Jim throwing pencils at each other over their computers. Instead, the show is about a “wunderkind boss who, in an effort to ensure his staff’s connectedness and productivity, asks them all to virtually interact and work face-to-face all day,” according to Deadline.
We’ve walked toward this change in work culture for years, but now it’s here for millions of people. The pandemic didn’t suddenly flip a switch; it proved that people can — and will — work without an office. Last year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 26 million Americans, or approximately 16 percent of the total workforce, work from home. Imagine if half of The Office’s cast suddenly stopped showing up because they could conduct calls at home and check in with co-workers online. Between 2005 and 2015, employees who telecommuted rose by 115 percent, the bureau reported.
Those years also happen to represent The Office’s run. As The Office went off the air, so did the idea that day-to-day work would look the same as it did in 2005. More than 55 million people are gig workers who don’t have offices to go to, more people are set to work from home than ever, and an entire generation of employees may not experience that type of work setting — one considered universal less than 20 years ago. That’s the future pop culture will incorporate. There’s something poetic about The Office’s co-producers being some of the first to try.
“Start with the office comedy, lose the office and you’re just left with comedy,” co-producer Lieberstein told Deadline. “The math works.”
In the meantime, many of us are at home, so lonely that we are wistfully streaming old episodes of The Office, longing for the Dwight Schrutes in our lives, wishing they could do something annoying enough that we could turn to another colleague for just a moment and roll our eyes.