After some eight years on TV, the US version of The Office aired its series finale on May 16, 2013. Slack, the messaging platform now favored by actual offices around the world, launched almost exactly three months later, effectively rendering the kind of workplace humor The Office traded in—outbursts by coworkers, awkward silences, communal birthday cake—moot. Slack has made a lot of work (and a lot of gossip) so much easier, but what it’s changed is colleague camaraderie. Don’t believe us? Just log into The Office (Slack).
On the surface, The Office (Slack) is a wildly ambitious project. Operated by the collective MSCHF, an internet virality-chasing collective specializing in "structured chaos,” it’s an attempt to re-create every episode of the NBC comedy in a Slack channel, from 9 am to 5 pm ET every weekday until they’ve done all nine seasons. Bits of dialog are typed out; sight gags are turned into GIFs. Anyone—even you!—can join. There are rooms for #pranks and #worlds_best_boss. It’s fun to watch, and probably speaks to what would happen at Dunder Mifflin if it were an actual company operating right now. Put another way, it’s terrible television—and an odd reminder of what so many people are missing while working from home.
MSCHF never intended any of this; the collective started on the project before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Yet it speaks volumes about the visceral nature of work dynamics. Many of the best gags on The Office, and many of the best moments in offices in general, are the shared glances between colleagues, the laughs shared over puns made in meetings. (Oh. Are puns a WIRED thing? Never mind.) In the seven years since Slack became the de facto workplace messaging app, many of those things have moved to DMs and channels dedicated to cats, but there is a part of vocal, in-person collaboration that has shifted, possibly permanently, and that’s only getting more entrenched now that Covid-19 has turned everyone’s coworkers into potential vectors of disease. Slack—and, for that matter, Zoom—are saving as many jobs and lives as they can, but they’re shadow replacements for watercooler conversations.
Make no mistake: Thanks to Slack, Zoom, email, Gchat, whatever, companies and their workers have been transitioning to WFH strategies for nearly a decade. Working from home is nice sometimes, and not everyone likes talking to their coworkers (or being talked at by them). One of the biggest pitfalls of open office plans is the fact that privacy can be hard to find, and concentration is tough with so many conversations swirling in the air. Eight weeks into quarantine, though, it’s easy to start missing the three-dimensional faces of one’s coworkers—even the annoying ones, even the Dwight Schrutes. If The Office (Slack) is indicative of anything, it’s this, if for no other reason than watching The Office play out on Slack can make one really wish they were watching The Office on TV.
Now, however, the trifecta of Slack, Zoom, and Covid-19 is also changing what TV looks like, too. Newscasters are doing interviews over video conference, Desus & Mero is being filmed in a similar manner, and the final run of Saturday Night Live has largely involved gags about Zoom—done on Zoom. TV writers’ rooms are now happening on the teleconferencing platform, and Netflix has greenlit an anthology series called Social Distance that will be written, produced, and filmed virtually. As always, Hollywood is continuing to innovate, but it’s hard to imagine at least some of them aren’t wishing they were pitching jokes sitting around a whiteboard.
That’s even true for the team behind The Office (Slack). MSCHF has been working on the project for about four months, converting all of the show's scripts into Slack-ready chats. Now they have about 20 people working to keep the Slack going. (It’ll likely take two to three weeks for them to play out every episode on Slack.) The project’s release was planned months ago, and no one knew they were going to be dropping it at a time when more people were relying on Slack than normal; it was, MSCHF comms person Sam Thompson says, “just lucky timing.” But they are now just as socially distant as the rest of America. “I definitely think that it’s reminiscent of how folks are feeling now when most of them can’t be in their own offices with their coworkers,” Thompson says. “At least at MSCHF, we really feel this way.” No, we’re not making that up. That’s what she said.