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What 'The Office' teaches us about job satisfaction

POSTED: March 24, 2015 9:39 p.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

America's favorite workplace turns 10 this week. Fans of Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael Scott and the rest of "The Office's" cast of characters will mark a decade since the comically dysfunctional crew first came to television screens.

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America's favorite workplace turns 10 this week. Fans of Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael Scott and the rest of "The Office's" cast of characters will mark a decade since the comically dysfunctional crew first came to television screens.

In honor of the anniversary, experts on workforce issues reflected on its impact, noting that the series captured an important idea: For many Americans, co-workers make an otherwise unsatisfactory job more fun.

The Conference Board, a New York-based research group that's been tracking job satisfaction in America since 1987, reports that unhappiness is widespread in the workforce. In 2014, 52.3 percent of U.S. adults said they were unhappy with their job, citing frustration with vacation policies and health plan options, among other issues, Forbes reported.

However, 60.6 percent of workers credited their colleagues with improving their work environment. The response outranked even "interest in work," which 59 percent of employees cited, in a list of factors leading to higher job satisfaction.

According to people who write about and research healthy workplaces, co-worker friendships boost overall worker wellbeing and job satisfaction. But, like any relationship, they take effort to maintain.

Ron Friedman, the founder of workplace consulting firm ignite80, said managers and employees alike should be proactive about supporting an office where friendships thrive.

"It's helpful for everyone to realize that what keeps workers engaged and satisfied isn't necessarily a higher income or a better office," he said. Instead, it's things like feeling competent and autonomous and "creating authentic, meaningful relationships with the people around you."

Every Jim has a Dwight

The link between job satisfaction and co-workers isn't obvious, because so many people can easily name someone at work who drives them crazy, said Anita Bruzzese, a blogger for "The Fast Track" blog from Intuit and who's been writing about workplace issues for around 25 years. In fact, it was "The Office's" ability to parody awkward co-worker relationships that made it so popular, she said.

But dwelling on an office frenemy or that cubicle neighbor who chews too loudly misses the larger truth reported in workplace studies and captured in "The Office's" nine seasons: Co-workers are like a second family.

"You do face a lot of stress together. Sometimes you are rats on a sinking ship and sometimes you are the winners of the World Series. You live and die with one another," Bruzzese said.

She said the best way for an employee to nurture meaningful co-worker friendships is to maintain appropriate boundaries.

"You do have to draw a few lines," she said. "It's one of those things where you have to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Do they want to hear about your trip to the urologist? No, probably not."

When it comes to discussing non-work issues in the office, employees should focus on keeping conversations light, she said, highlighting how fun it is to compete together in March Madness pools or discuss weekend plans.

And when co-workers start to be annoying, as they do in even the healthiest workplaces, people should take it on themselves to protect their positive attitude, Bruzzese said.

"When a person's obnoxious laugh gets to you, get up and take a walk," she said. "Being outside resets your brain."

Similarly, Friedman highlighted the importance of employees doing what they can to create the best workplace possible.

"It comes down to deciding what you want from work," he said. "And the answer is usually the same as in every other domain in life: Psychologically fulfilling experiences," the kind that happen when co-workers are connected enough to get past basic pleasantries and work together to produce great results.

Manage like Michael Scott, sort of

In his book, "The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace," Friedman spends many pages discussing how office leaders can encourage the kind of co-worker friendships he and Bruzzese outlined. He noted that good bosses make hiring decisions with current employees in mind, looking for the right type of personality in addition to valuable skills.

"If you're conducting an interview in the right way, … you can predict how a candidate will perform on the job" and fit into the office environment, "rather than simply monitoring their responses and how charismatic they are," he said in an interview.

Adam Heitzman, co-founder and managing partner at HigherVisibility, an online marketing firm, said paying attention to a candidate's personality is an essential part of his hiring decisions.

"Unfortunately, one bad apple can ruin the (office) culture for a lot of people," he said.

Heitzman recently published a list of the top 10 things managers can learn from "The Office," in which he focused on the series' most memorable character, Michael Scott, portrayed by actor Steve Carell.

"Remember that even though sometimes Michael Scott may have made poor choices or actually done a bad job managing his employees, his branch consistently had the highest earnings at Dunder Mifflin. He must have been doing something right, whether or not he and his employees knew it," Heitzman wrote.

Heitzman and Bruzzese both said that what Michael Scott did best was to recognize the importance of making time for some fun.

Good managers "obviously want people to do their jobs, but, at the same time, can recognize the value of a relaxed environment," Heitzman said.

However, part of the show's punchline was that Michael Scott always took it a little too far, focusing on being more of a friend than a leader, Bruzzese said.

"Bosses should be friendly, but it's much more important for the people who work for you to respect you and to know that you're fair," she said. "Those are more important qualities than getting together for a game of touch football."

'The Office,' remembered

When Friedman reflects on "The Office's" nine seasons, he's often struck by how well it captured people's frustrations about their careers. For instance, Jim regularly looked into the camera and questioned what he was doing continuing to work at a paper company.

"I think it really reflected an attitude of people feeling really disengaged at work," the same attitude represented in job satisfaction surveys, he said.

And yet the show also put many of the best practices for inspiring worker engagement on display, Friedman noted. It frustrates him when business leaders fail to recognize that fact and ignore the variety of studies on cultivating healthier work environments in favor of focusing on the bottom line.

"We don't have to guess about happiness in the workplace," he said. "We have all the science and all we really need to do is apply it."
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