This next post in my series, New Year; New Types of Friends is from the epitome of shows about friendships at work. The Office shows that friendships with your co-workers are not always as genuine as you might expect. Although I’m not a big fan of the show, it reveals how much co-workers can get involved in each other’s lives and become close friends. It also shows that not all work friendships are valuable, especially when there is one-up-manship in the office.
About The Office
The Office is an American mockumentary television series about the everyday work lives of employees at the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. It debuted on NBC as a mid-season replacement for Committed, a Gen X dating sitcom featuring a dying clown who lives in a closet. It aired 201 episodes from March 24, 2005, to May 16, 2013, spanning a total of nine seasons.
Based on the 2001–2003 BBC series of the same name created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the show was adapted for American television by Greg Daniels, a veteran writer for Saturday Night Live, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons. Like its British counterpart, the show was filmed in a single-camera setup without a studio audience or a laugh track to simulate the look of an actual documentary.
The original cast featured Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and B. J. Novak; however, the series experienced numerous changes during its run. The show was met with mixed reviews during its short first season, but the following seasons, particularly those featuring Carell, received significant acclaim from television critics as the show’s characters, content, structure, and tone diverged considerably from the British version.
The series won several awards such as a Peabody Award in 2006, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe Award for Carell’s performance, and four Primetime Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2006. The eighth season saw a decline in quality due to Carell’s departure. The series finale aired on May 16, 2013, was viewed by an estimated 5.69 million viewers, and garnered critical acclaim. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine named The Office one of the 100 greatest television shows of all time.
More Than Just Co-Workers
The characters of The Office were more than just colleagues who get a job done. They really did care for and support one another.
Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) is the Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. He genuinely cares about his co-workers but has awkward ways of showing it. He is the only one who goes to Pam’s art show. He also shows concern for Stanley’s health after his heart attack. Michael often refers to his employees as his family or friends, once saying with the crew, “The most sacred thing I do is care and provide for my workers, my family. I give them money. I give them food. Not directly, but through the money.”
Some unlikely and complex friendships form throughout the nine years of the show. Many of the employees are friends at times but don’t always get along. The entire show revolves around being ridiculous and sometimes awful to each other.
For example, Michael and Dwight Schrute (played by Rainn Wilson) were two of the most inseparable characters but are never actually friends. Because of his personality, Dwight worships his boss. He refers to Michael as “the one person I have been hired to protect.” Dwight sees Michael as a means to an end. He bends over backward trying to please him and is first to jump in on Michael’s hare-brained schemes. Michael finds Dwight irritating but enjoys the attention and devotion Dwight lavishes upon him.
Don’t Be a Dwight
Dwight is the consummate office suckup who should have been fired multiple times for trying to steal Michael’s job. He is one of the highest-ranking salesmen, as well as the original Assistant Regional Manager. He is notorious for his lack of social skills and common sense, his love for martial arts, and the justice system.
As the series goes on, Michael and Dwight’s relationship starts to become more conditional, often getting them into more fights and falling outs. They still show a genuine fondness for each other and continue to be friends. Michael shows he does care in “Dwight’s Speech” and how he was the best man at Dwight’s wedding in “Finale.”
Dwight is also known for his office rivalry with a fellow salesman, Jim Halper (John Krasinski). Dwight and Jim constantly prank each other. They have drastically different interests and personalities and are up against each other for various promotions. Near the end of the series, they become good friends with Dwight asking Jim to be his “bestisch mensch” (which is Schrute for “best man”).
When Dwight finally becomes Regional Manager for the Scranton location, he sums up his relationships like this: “Have I gotten along with my subordinates? Let’s see…Oscar Martinez, my accountant, is now godfather to my son. Angela Schrute, my former accountant, is now my wife. My top salesman, Jim Halpert, was the best man at my wedding. And office administrator Pamela Beesly-Halpert is my best friend. So, yes, I would say I have gotten along with my subordinates.”
Probably the biggest romantic relationship is Jim and Pam’s which starts with the big kiss on Casino Night. Their work friendship leads to their wedding day in Niagara Falls and then learning to navigate the complications of balancing life, work, and family.
Dwight is also known for his romantic relationship with Angela Martin, head of the accounting department. Their long-running secret romance is full of fights and lies. In the end, you find out that they were meant to be together.
There is also Michael’s ongoing search for love to fulfill his lifelong dream of having a wife and kids. He dates his manipulative boss, Jan, and short stints with women like his realtor Carol, and Pam’s mom, Helene.
The final episode reveals that Michael and his soulmate, Holly Flax from HR, have kids together as Michael is so proud to show everyone their pictures. Michael comments about his former employees: “I feel like all my kids grew up, and then they married each other. It’s every parent’s dream!” Michael does get his big family after all.
Making Work Friendships
The Office shows us that it’s hard to make and keep friends as a working adult. Gone are the relationships and networks found in dorms and classrooms. Gone is sports team camaraderie. Enter friends at work, where you spend (at least) forty hours of your week. However, most people just haven’t made their work time very social.
Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times that Americans have significantly fewer work friends than other countries and that having a close friend at work has decreased over the past three decades. Grant indicates, “Once, work was a major source of friendships. We took our families to company picnics and invited our colleagues over for dinner.”
Today, people don’t have one-track careers since we switch jobs every few years, which puts less importance placed on deepening office bonds. We’re more focused on climbing the corporate ladder, starting our own business, or finding the next job that pays better.
Grant also indicates not all friendships at work are valuable. He adds, “Ambition and achievement are good things, but when we befriend coworkers, we also befriend our potential competitors.”
Don’t Let Work Friends Stress You Out
The changing work environment consisting of more work-from-home employees, Zoom calls, and virtual productivity tools are denying us a very useful element of coworker friendships: in-office relationships.
NPR therapist Shankar Vedantam recently reviewed a study from Rutgers University that found having work friends can benefit our efficiency and career advancement. The good news is the Rutgers study indicates that having a friend can improve your work. The study found that “people who had more friendships at work were often rated by their supervisors as being more productive.”
But Vedantam says you need to navigate your professional-become-personal relationships with care. Office pals can also be emotionally draining if you feel pressured to maintain good rapport while competing for positions or pay raises.
Like we see on The Office, not all friendships at work add value. While Michael and Dwight seem to care about one another, much of their friendship involved using one another or going behind each other’s backs. Competition among co-workers can add stress and cause anxiety.
There is a fine line between professional and personal friends since not all friendships at work are valuable. The first thing to ask yourself is “What is the purpose of work?”
While it may seem counterintuitive, you’re ultimately at work to work and not to make friends. If you have trouble maintaining boundaries between your work and personal life, take a step back. Assess how beneficial making friendships at work is for your career, your health, and the good of the company.
It starts with this question, “What value does this friendship add?
Your first inclination may be to insert “to my life” at the end of that question. But when you pursue a life more like Jesus, that question becomes, “What value can I add to someone’s life?”
- Perhaps you are that caring friend after the death of a spouse, child, or another co-worker? (check out my post about the Friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo).
- You might informally mentor a younger co-worker to help save their career. (see Every Guy Needs These Top Gun Friendships about how IceMan helped save Maverick’s career).
- Maybe your friendship with a work colleague leads to discussions about workaholism and the stresses of the job. Good friends help you see the importance of work-life balance for your health.
- Sometimes, a working relationship can develop into something romantic. I’ve seen it happen during various times in my career. But you should not mix romance and work.
Regardless, keep in mind that you do not have to be friends with everyone at the office. Of course, you should remain professional and treat your coworkers equally. While your work friends may never be as chummy as your personal friends, who doesn’t need a good laugh at work on occasion?
My last post in this subset of examples of friendship from television provides some snippets of other sidekicks on TV. I then begin with some famous friendships in literature.