Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Fake Management Consultant’s Advice for “The Office”

Some people would rather poke their eyes out than work in an office building. I can’t blame them. It’s not for everybody. It’s not for most people, in fact, including most people who work in offices.

But the artificial society that exists from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM in cities and towns across the country is where many humans spend their most productive, or at least active, hours. And from The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit to Death of a Salesman, from The Apartment to Glenagarry Glen Ross to Office Space to The Corporation, writers and film makers rarely present office life in a positive light.

One of the more popular television shows about the workplace is NBC’s The Office, a remake of a British sitcom of the same name. The UK original focused on a small paper company operating in a lifeless, overcast industrial area of England, and the soul-crushing daily absurdities of its staff.


The office in The Office is headed by a completely clueless manager who thinks his sloganeering and trendy management gimmicks keep his staff motivated, when it’s actually their apathy and resignation that keeps them at their desks.

The American version of the show started off with the same mood, trading the bleakness of Slough for the blandness of Scranton, Pennsylvania. However, having now completed six seasons (the UK original, by contrast, consisting of only two seasons and a Christmas special) the US Office has become more of a conventional sitcom. Its characters are more likeable and loyal to each other and their workplace. While the workers still grumble and snip at each others heels, positive emotions like love, satisfaction, and friendship play much bigger roles in the US Office than they ever did in the British.

Sometimes while watching the show I’ve wondered what I would do if I was a management consultant tasked with improving the office. If I were in the position of recommending what to do with the various characters in this show, this is what I would suggest:

Michael Scott (The Ineffective Boss) - Michael Scott is the branch manager, and is just terrible. As a longtime D-M employee, his corporate seniority, as well as his employees’ indifference, keep him from getting fired.

The solution: Give him is old job back. It’s not that Michael is incompetent, it’s that he’s in the wrong job. Whenever he goes out on a sales call, Michael shines. And he genuinely cares about people. Put him back on the street making calls and shaking hands.

Dwight Schrute (The Weird Guy) – Dwight is the office’s resident creep, the one you would never hang out with outside of work because of his weird habits and inability to engage anyone in a “normal” way. On top of that, he’s extremely arrogant with delusions that he should be in charge.

The problem is that Dwight is also very good at his job. He’s the top salesman in the best producing office in the company.

The Solution: Give him what he wants. Dwight wants respect and authority. So put him in charge of something that doesn’t involve co-workers or company policy, like Office Safety Chief. If he’s the top salesman every month (and he usually is) give him an award regularly so he feels acknowledged.

Jim Halpert (The Slacker) - Jim is a counterpoint to Dwight. He’s good-looking, funny, and likeable. He also doesn’t really give a shit about his job, not the way Dwight does. He puts as much energy into playing pranks on Dwight as he does working. It’s not that he’s a bad employee, but his presence is more about lack of ambition than anything else.

The Solution: Offer him clear goals with positive reinforcement. One possible way to do this - the company should consider making him the branch manager. Now that he has a house and a baby on the way, he might appreciate the stability of a non-sales job, and being directly accountable for office performance might engage his creative energies more toward improving how the office works, instead of new schemes to humiliate Dwight.

Pam Beesly (The Unfocused Dreamer) - Pam is a dedicated, helpful employee. It’s been clear from the first episode, though, that she would rather be doing something else than answering phones and caddying Michael's idiocy. She tried art school, but that didn’t last. She went off with Michael to form a new company, but that didn’t work either. Now she’s in sales, with a baby on the way. Assuming she gets time off for maternity leave, Pam’s sales role will be the next thing that she starts but doesn’t finish.

The Solution: Give her a shot at something else besides reception, but don’t step on anyone else’s toes. Pam basically wants the security of a job with the adventure of being able to try new things. Don’t we all. The trick is finding something for her to do that doesn’t’ interfere with others. Michael making Pam a salesperson when there is already a high-performing sales group in the office was a mistake.

Ryan Howard (The Failure) - He got an MBA but has been a temp in the office forever. Like Jim, he doesn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the company or his work. Given the chance to pull off a big project, he became even more of an incompetent pisser (only this time cocaine-fueled) and got the firm wrapped up in an accounting scandal.

The Solution: One option would be to get him hired at a competitor. His negative vibe is sure to at least slow down any progress they make in their systems. Otherwise, step up or move on. Star making sales or figuring out ways to make the company better, or go back to that plum bowling alley shoe spraying job he had before Michael tapped him for his startup venture.

That counts for Dunder-Mifflin as well. With all the complaining about needing to cut costs, it seems a simple matter to look at the headcount and pinpoint the guy who not doing anything. Make him a job offer or let him go.

Creed Barton (Dead Weight) – Ostensibly in charge of Quality Control, Creed does nothing but think of ways to not work. Dunder Mifflin is not so much a place of employment as a place for him to hang out during the day.

The Solution: Fire him. This is another example of Dunder-Mifflin's blind spot for cost-cutting by getting rid of unproductive personnel. It might be hard to get rid of Creed without cause (given the Byzantine nature of employment laws, but one option would be for the company to let him go and give his job to Pam.

Everyone else (Effective, Somewhat Motivated, Basically Uninspired workers) - The rest of the office is made up of people who basically come in, do their jobs, and leave. They’re older, they have no ambition, their focus is more on job security than innovating or moving up the corporate ladder. While they complain and obviously don’t love their jobs, but they don’t hate them either, at least not enough to look for new ones.

The Solution: Give them what they need to succeed, and get out of the way. It might be easy to refer to the supporting characters of the Office as with unflattering words like “sheep” or “cattle,” content to graze away in their cubicles until it’s time to retire. But where would civilization be without its herds of sheep and cattle, providing the food, clothing and labor we’ve grown accustomed to?

One of the biggest general management mistakes made in the 2000s is in assuming that everyone in a company wants to be an entrepreneur, that everyone had to give to constantly give 110% because that’s what it takes to survive and Be The Best. It’s already been established that the Scranton office is the best office in the company. We’re not all go-getters and ladder-climbers, and not everyone wants to be “The Man.” Sometimes just doing your job is good enough.

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