Learning from Movies: Office Space

Posted on April 18, 2011


Office Space came out twelve years ago, and yet we still crack jokes about “Uhm, yeah…” and “I’m gonna have to ask you to come in this weekend.” “PC Load Letter” and “TPS reports” are part of our cultural vocabulary. Using it for this column is a little obvious, though, so I’m going to change up the format a little.

Wait, what?

The central lesson of Office Space would seem to be that you should just smoke (or drink) up, tune out, and just go do whatever you want. Except, I think there’s more to it than that.

Peter’s Problem

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) states his problem with work in his first interview with “the Bobs”: No matter how hard he works, he gets paid the same. With eight bosses, he can never satisfy all his supervisors. That means every day at work is miserable. You can’t make that seem like a good work situation.


Work in the corporate world demands sacrifices and compromises. You’re going to work long hours. You’re going to work weekends. You’re going to be traveling on important family days. What you have to know is how far you’re willing to go.

Management’s Problem

You’re Bill Lumbergh, or any of Peter’s other seven bosses. How do you motivate Peter? The Bobs hit on a solution: Promote him. That’s a simple solution that works with the existing infrastructure. Something else that you can do is put your head together with the other supervisors and try to clarify the chain of command. Reduce the number of supervisors that he has to deal with every day.


Skip the hollow gestures. No one cares about cake when you don’t buy enough to feed everyone. No one cares about Hawaiian shirt day if they hate their working conditions. If you want to be a real maverick (for example, if you read Further Up the Organization and want to apply some of it), go to corporate and start recommending motivational programs – profit-sharing, or at least give concrete rewards for productivity. I work projects for Pearson Education Measurement, where this year they implemented pay based on productivity rather than hours worked. Even before that, our site supervisor held “team spirit” awards, and gave out little public rewards on her own.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Office Space is a comedy. Many of the characters are caricatures of the worst denizens of corporate offices. It’s not meant to illustrate how to, or how not to, run an office. The real problem is that Peter’s bosses are self-centered careerists. They don’t care about Initech, and they don’t care about the people who work there. That’s an institutional problem. Even if they fix it at Peter’s office, the rest of the company is still messed up.

Be the Change

Be the change you want to see in the world. Talk about the issues and suggest solutions. If every supervisor cracks down on you, get chummy with their supervisors. If those people crack down on your ideas, write them up on http://www.glassdoor.com or http://www.wetfeet.com and start looking for someplace else to work.

Posted in: Leadership, Movies