From the Playbill: Take Your Humanity to Work Day

By Maddie Gaw

There might not be a more universal American workplace image than the office. People hunched over their identical desks, the steady hum of technology underscoring a chorus of fingers typing in unison, broken up by visits to the water cooler or the broken coffee machine. It’s an image so familiar that it’s achieved timelessness, ensuring the lasting popularity of classics like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Dilbert and The Office.

While Michael Scott and company’s antics, friendships and romances on NBC’s hit television series occasionally seemed inappropriate, modern office culture is trending towards a more casual intimacy between co-workers. Whether those trends are effective, or even positive, is a matter of debate that the characters in Swimmers are grappling with.

One significant trend affecting modern office relationships is a move towards structurally flatter hierarchies. Taking a page from Google and Silicon Valley startups, many companies are, if not quite eliminating management entirely, lessening the power and communication gap between the CEO and the entry-level office drone. This is often reinforced by an open office floor plan that does away with private offices and cubicle farms. While the Swimmers building still has a corner office or two, everyone else shares a workstation.

Another trend brought over from tech companies is telecommuting and other remote work alternatives. While this cuts down on time physically spent in an office and theoretically gives people more time with family and friends, the reality is that the average American spends almost 9 hours a day on work-related activities, and only 3 hours on downtime, regardless of where they do their work. Blurring the line between work and home creates an environment where professional and personal relationships also become less distinct.

Some argue that these trends carry some obvious downsides. Just because you can instant message your boss or drop by a CEO’s desk unannounced, professionalism is still expected. Newer employees might be more prone to casual behavior with supervisors because flat management and open office culture symbolizes a false equality.

Egalitarian fantasies aren’t the only narratives being forced onto workplace relationships. Someone’s nurturing instinct designates them the office parent, and they are subsequently forced to spend more time parenting co-workers than their actual children, like the character Charlene in Swimmers. Co-workers who get along otherwise are suddenly up for the same promotion, and develop a pseudo-sibling rivalry, like the characters Bill and Farrah. When the time Americans spend with their work increases, so do these dynamics.

While these examples demonstrate how intimacy with co-workers can have negative consequences, it’s possible that a different kind of intimacy can achieve more positive outcomes. Business consultants and leadership coaches David Rock and Sylvia LaFair argue that while most people in business leadership positions are discouraged from addressing human dynamics and emotions in the office, the problems that arise from those situations still remain and contribute to time lost on unnecessary workplace dramas. Instead of prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution to workers’ emotional issues, supervisors should consider the immense complexity of human behavior when it comes time to manage people.

One of the main plot threads in Swimmers involves some office gossip, whose layers become more complex as the play unfolds. Does gossip come from knowing too much about a person, or does it come from knowing too little? This question hangs in the air as the characters in Swimmers search and stumble for human connection.