How ‘Severance’ and ‘WeCrashed’ Hold an Uncomfortable Mirror to the Post-COVID Office

We’re a long way from the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin

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A woman sprawled across a wood table wakes up in a windowless conference room. A man forgets his full name when he walks into a vast, snow-capped office tower. These are among the opening scenes of the hit Apple TV+ show “Severance,” where the employees of the mysterious Lumon Industries live their lives entirely inside bleak, sterile offices — or at least the only part of their lives they can remember. 

“Severance,” directed by Ben Stiller, imagines a world where people can separate their work selves and their personal selves. The stars of the show, notably Mark (played by Adam Scott), remember nothing from their work lives once they leave the confines of Lumon’s office complex — the iconic Bell Works building in Holmdel, N.J. Talk about work-life balance.

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The series, which wrapped its first season in April, portrays the office in a soul-sucking, fluorescent light — a place where workers have no power or privacy. It’s the latest of several shows to tackle the workplace in the last decade and a half, and perhaps one of the darkest compared to the sunnier Michael Schur-produced NBC series “The Office.” As Rolling Stone writer Alan Sepinwall so aptly put it, in “Severance,” work is hell. 

But the shift between the depiction of the office in “The Office,” which aired its first episode in 2005, and “Severance,” is more than directorial choice. “Severance” premiered in February after the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed what the office, and work itself, meant for white-collar workers. About 61 percent of those workers forced to take meetings from their bedrooms, kitchen tables and basements in the early days of the pandemic now choose to work from home because they prefer it, according to a Pew Research Survey. Meanwhile, their in-office counterparts experience higher levels of anxiety, dissatisfaction and stress, Commercial Observer previously reported.

While “Severance” was in development years before coronavirus was a household word, the show seemed like the perfect answer to growing concerns over work-life balance that emerged during the pandemic, and a natural opposite to previous (and far cheerier) televised interpretations of the office. With the rise of work from home and the decline of commercial office real estate property values, landlords and brokers have hemmed and hawed about the fate of the office. At the same time, television has reflected back the fears of office workers on a huge silver screen. 

“I think this kind of media representation is really important,” said Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, an associate professor at Purdue University who wrote the book on American office design. “I do think these things reflect changing values, changing ideals, changing expectations among workers and rising fears and frustrations as well.”

Popular media about the office — from the 1989 comic strip “Dilbert” to the 1999 film “Office Space” — have historically taken a subversive stand for office workers. Posting a “Dilbert” comic in your partitioned cubicle, a design that became associated with isolation, noise and a lack of privacy and individuality, was an act of rebellion, Kaufman-Buhler said. Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of CBRE’s New York tri-state region, remembered how the comic would critique the stereotypical office of the 1990s. Today’s workers, who have been endlessly surveyed during the pandemic, have far more power to impact their working environment, she added. 

“The vast majority of employers want their workforce to feel a desire to come to work, and that is a profound change,” Tighe said.

The pandemic-era office is defined by what’s not there — workers. Foot traffic at office buildings in New York City was still 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels in May, according to data from Placer.ai, and bosses have been throwing everything from golf simulators to dog day cares to try to get them back. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz even said in June that he’d “get on [his] knees” and “do whatever you want” if corporate workers would just return to their desks. But the changing vision of the office in television may speak to a few reasons why workers are hesitant to head back. 

In “The Office” at the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin, you can view most of the characters’ desks from the entryway. The open floor plan, first popularized in the 1960s and 1970s, was in part brought about by a change in management ideals, said Kaufmann-Buhler. Bosses began to see knowledge workers as more autonomous, and the open floor plan reflected the flattening of company hierarchies.

Those ideals are on display in “The Office” as well. Direct oversight is rare, allowing the characters to fall in and out of love, form lifelong friendships and, more often than not, make their own mistakes. The nine-season sitcom holds up the office as the canvas for these characters’ lives, and the camera rarely follows them outside of it. 

The office portrayed in “Severance,” while still falling within the open floor plan genre, is quite the opposite. The interior is four partitioned desks closely knit together in the center of a green carpet, surrounded on all sides by oppressive white walls reflecting the overhanging fluorescent lights that make shadows seem longer and the actors’ eye bags seem even deeper. Clunky computers and now ancient slide projectors pervade the space, evoking an unhappy nostalgia for workplaces past.

“Severance” is playing off the cubicles of the 1990s. As the idealism of the 1960s quickly faded into the inflation and later recession of the early 1970s, the open plan found itself shrinking. Companies crammed workers into smaller workstations — and the walls (literally) started closing in, Kaufman-Buhler said. Say goodbye to the open plan and hello to the “cube farm” — or so the blocks of identical workstations enclosed by partitions were derogatorily termed. 

The post-COVID office is not quite the dystopian trap for white-collar workers that “Severance” portrays nor the vast cheery open plan of “The Office” — at least not in New York City. The television show that will imagine that space probably hasn’t been written yet. Ironically, though, Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed,” which portrays the rise and fall of WeWork, displays some examples of what the new office is beginning to look like. Co-workers enjoy enticing amenities, community space and a focus on collaboration in the fictionalized environment. As Adam Neumann (played by the ever-disconcerting Jared Leto) strides around an empty office building in Brooklyn, he waves his hand and desks, a foosball table and a bar appear one by one — driven by that idealistic vision of an office built on community, not business. And community seems to be the buzzword around the virtual water cooler. 

The French commercial bank BNP Paribas unveiled its new regional headquarters at 787 Seventh Avenue in June with a focus on providing the 2,300-some employees that will work there with common spaces and amenities like a coffee bar and a bike room. At BNP, staffers reserve desks in advance for their in-person days — meaning a worker doesn’t have an assigned post. The new office is part of the bank’s plan to entice staffers back into the office, and BNP switched in June to requiring two days a week in-person as opposed to one, said Kevin Abraszek, head of human relations change and transformation at the bank (and whose job title alone speaks to the changing ways companies see work and workers). But BNP will never require employees to come to the office five days a week, he added. 

“When people are coming in, we want that time in the office to be truly valuable to them,” Abraszek told CO. “It doesn’t really make sense for us to be in the office and on video conferences the whole time. … When it comes to our premises, we’ve actually spent a lot of time designing spaces that are very collaborative in spirit — like how the seating arrangements allow the flexibility to sit in different spaces in the building.”

The architecture firm Ennead Architects has also embraced collaboration space and a hybrid working environment. Molly McGowan and Kevin McClurkan, both management partners at Ennead, believe in the sunnier, sitcom version of the office as a place where good company culture is built and where the two formed a friendship that will outlast their respective careers. To them, remote work is another way to reinforce that positive culture.

“Hybrid work supports people who have other things that they are doing in their lives that make them a better person and help bring them into their community,” McGowan said.

Collaboration and community — two words that go hand in hand with the candy-colored vision Leto’s Neumann lays out in early episodes of “WeCrashed,” before he is ousted as CEO. But what “Severance,” “The Office” and even “WeCrashed” have in common is the one thing that might be giving workers pause when it comes to heading back into the concrete jungle: surveillance.

The lovable yet horribly politically incorrect boss Michael Scott of “The Office” can watch his employees from his desk, Leto’s interpretation of Neumann causes an entire office building to grow quiet when he waltzes through, and the workers in “Severance” are constantly observed from a set of security cameras. Remote work, on the other hand, is largely without oversight from bosses and managers.

“I think there is this real fear, and this is as old as management itself, that if you’re not seeing the work being done, the work is not being done — that work has to be visible,” Kaufmann-Buhler said. “There’s this fantasy that we have of what communication and collaboration looks like. There’s this real obsession with how the physical environment of the office and the space can facilitate those interactions.” 

Managers are more likely to be dissatisfied with working remotely, according to Wen Fan, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston College who studies how gender, socio-economic status and race intersect with remote work. Logistically, it’s both more difficult to manage a remote team and harder to see work getting done in a remote environment; but employees in non-supervisory roles tend to experience less stress with hybrid and remote work than their in-office counterparts, she added. 

To real estate veteran and boss Bob Knakal, it’s a balancing act. The office is essential for young employees to learn and grow their careers, but “nobody goes to their grave saying ‘I’m really glad I worked so many hours,’” said Knakal, chairman of New York investment sales at JLL. Bill Montana, a senior managing director at Savills, went back to the office as soon as he could after the pandemic started. He’s found in-person interaction is crucial to getting a sense of a person when brokering deals or building a team. As a young broker, he insisted on hand-delivering leases just to get that extra face-to-face contact — and the extra business that came with it.

“The person who’s sitting at home on their couch in their underwear, phoning it in, not showing up, not caring, not giving their time, will wither in comparison to the people who show up, in my opinion,” Montana said.

In “Severance,” the workers withering away are the ones trapped at their desks. In “The Office,” the work environment is the bright and hilarious spotlight where the characters shine. And in “WeCrashed,” the office is a place where everyone gets to feel a little less alone — up until WeWork’s employees are left cashless while Neumann deploys his golden parachute. The question left for bosses and staffers alike is: What interpretation do you believe? 

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.