Largely overlooked by critics in its own time, Mike Judge’s 1999 movie “Office Space” has become a cult classic, striking a nerve in any office worker who has ever seen it. Its main appeal when it was released (other than its comic genius), was how utterly relatable it was. Now, twenty years later, we can look back on the film and the world in which it was created and marvel at how much things have changed.
The plot is simple: Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingston, is a disgruntled corporate drone who is forced by his girlfriend, who’s fed up with his constant complaining, to see a hypnotist. It works. Suddenly filled with a nearly supernatural sense of calm and newfound confidence, he shamelessly flouts the rules of a conventional office – he dresses casually, physically destroys his oppressive cubicle, and treats his bosses as if he were their equal. In a funny twist of fate, this supposedly outrageous behavior puts him on the fast track to a promotion.
But the plot is almost beside the point. People love “Office Space” because of its sympathetic real portrayal of the average office worker. “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day,” whines Gibbons at one point in the film.
When he’s hounded by no less than eight different managers for the same minor clerical error, when he is forced to report to work and sit in his claustrophobic little cubicle under the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting, when he’s treated as little more than an insignificant cog in a massive, soulless, bureaucratic machine — people could relate and sympathize with him.
On the flip side, when he took control of his own life, when he wore flip-flops to work and dismantled his cubicle so that he could see the sun and the trees outside, people felt as if they were watching their own secret desires played out on the big screen. Those wishes, seemingly impossible twenty years ago, have largely been realized today.
Today, workplaces are increasingly being designed with people-centered principles in mind – lots of natural light, green spaces in the office, and human, warm touches placed throughout the space. Dress codes are certainly more relaxed, with most offices having abolished the suit & tie/dresses and heels tradition for a much more relaxed style. The hoodie & jeans look is prevalent, especially at tech giants such as Google. In addition, a ‘flatter’, more egalitarian cooperative style of business is being implemented in many workplaces.
The nature of work itself has also changed. Flexibility is paramount in most cutting-edge industries — employees travel around the world working on different types of projects and increasingly, people are taking to freelancing and joining the ‘gig economy’ instead of being tied down by a traditional 9-to-5 job.
While this new work environment certainly comes with its own set of issues and challenges, we can now look back on movies such as “Office Space” from a comfortable distance and be grateful for the working world that we now inhabit. Businesses are more understanding of their employees’ needs and happiness in the workplace. Who knows? Maybe “Office Space” was actually a catalyst in our changing work culture. So next time you come to work and don’t sit at a grey cubicle, say a quick thanks to Peter Gibbons and his pals at Initech.