How many times have you watched NBC's hit TV series "The Office" and cringed? There's a reason for that response–the show is sometimes a little too close for comfort. Between office parties and office romances, weddings, awards ceremonies and double entendrés, "The Office" is one hilariously uncomfortable situation after another.
In addition to being entertainment, the show actually has a few lessons for real offices–including those that specialize in business services, like Dunder Mifflin.
After all, it's funny to watch other people in these situations, but it's not so funny to be in them in real life.
Bosses and employees can't be close friends
Michael Scott just wants to be loved, and he likes to think he can get the love he needs from his employees. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Bosses and employees can get along well, but they can't really be close friends. There's just too much baggage, too much opportunity for hurt feelings and too much potential for confusing personal and work lives.
Valerie Moody, owner of a small photo and video company called Fodeo, used to try to be friends with her employees, but she learned the hard way that it just doesn't work.
“When I first opened I tried that, and I got my feelings hurt," said Moody. "That might be more what the boss wants, but it's not what the employees want. I don’t Facebook-friend my employees, because I don't want to know what they do outside of work."
Communication is key
Michael's always trying to talk things out with his employees, and though it doesn't always go as planned, such talk sessions are a good idea. Ironically, however, it's because he wants to be friends with his employees that his attempts at communication don't go so well.
Keeping a separation between bosses and employees can help facilitate communication when the business requires it.
"One of my employees has been with me since we opened, and I absolutely love her," said Moody. "I have a respectful friendship with her. I know all about her family, and she knows all about mine. But I don’t cross the line, and because of that, if she has work concerns, she knows she can bring them to me.”
Conflict isn't always bad
One of the main sources of humor in "The Office" is conflict–between Dwight and Jim, between Angela and Pam, between Toby and Michael, between everybody and everybody else. In fact, all of the show's episodes have some kind of conflict. And to the show's credit, many of these conflicts are resolved–through talking, acting out, and making and correcting mistakes.
It's funny to watch, but it's also very real: any time you get a small number of people in a small space for any length of time, they're going to fight about something. The success of a business is how these fights are dealt with and get resolved.
Done right, a good fight can actually strengthen a business.
“It’s all about resolving conflict," said Richard Segal of Segal Consulting, which specializes in helping family businesses.
"Conflict happens in every relationship, and it doesn’t have to be bad. It can be good, and it’s how we grow.”
Customer service matters
Finally, for all those small, struggling B2B businesses out there, Dunder Mifflin holds out this hope: it's still around, and it's there in large part because of the customer service it provides. Yes, it loses customers who choose to buy their paper from larger companies with lower prices. Yes, there was the whole treat basket fiasco, when Michael and Dwight tried unsuccessfully to woo back customers with gourmet snacks.
The fact is, though, Dunder Mifflin survives week-to-week, and Jim and Dwight actually manage to have some good sales days, when they put their minds to it.
Perhaps this is the biggest lesson of all. Regardless of office dysfunction, a poor economy, woeful sales, miscommunication, awkward parties and weird employees, a business like Dunder Mifflin can make it and, on its good days, even laugh at itself.
Vivian Wagner is a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio. Vivian blogs via Contently.com.
Photo credit: flickr/Marcin Wichary