HR Lessons From Fictional Workplaces

By Stephanie Hammerwold

When you are trying to save the world one workplace at a time, it is hard to turn off the HR part of your brain. This means that I often find myself analyzing the work environments in my favorite books, movies and TV shows. Fictional stories are a great way to understand our lives better. Even if we are retreating into a world populated with dragons, magic and time travel, we can gain insight and think through problems in our own lives.

Lessons from Vonnegut on Workplace Automation
In a post for Blogging4Jobs, I wrote about the way reading shapes our understanding of work. Kurt Vonnegut’s books and short stories provide us with some food for thought on the workplace. Published in 1952, Player Piano was Vonnegut’s first novel. In the novel’s dystopian future, automation is to the point where human labor is nearly obsolete. To combat some of the problems caused by laborers with no purpose, people create jobs that are really just busy work in order to combat the idleness due to lack of real work.

While we still may be far from replacing all our human employees with machines, technology is evolving so quickly that it is easy to forget how it affects employees. Look at the shift in job duties caused by the personal computer. Secretaries have become administrative assistants, and most of us write our own emails rather than relying on someone to take dictation and type up the letter for us.

Rather than thinking only of how technology will improve a process, think of how technology can make work better for your employees. In addition, training needs to be a constant in the world of rapid technology evolution. This is the key to helping your employees grow with changing workplace technology.

Work on TV: Parks & Recreation and Downton Abbey
Two of my favorite shows are Parks & Recreation and Downton Abbey. Parks & Recreation ended its seven-year run recently, and Downton Abbey just announced that next season would be its last. The action on both shows revolves around the workplace, so they are full of all kinds of HR lessons.

Parks & Recreation follows Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson and other members of the Parks Department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. As I wrote about recently in a post for The HR Gazette, the best lesson learned from this show is about workplace friendships. Despite his anti-government, libertarian ways, Ron tolerates his job because of the bond he forms with his coworkers, which he calls “workplace proximity associates.” Sometimes we forget that one of the things people value most in a job is working with people they enjoy being around. Read more about my take on Parks & Recreation at Blogging4Jobs.

Downton Abbey gives us a peek at life in a large estate in early 20th century England. The house employs a staff of servants that include kitchen employees, footmen, lady’s maids and more. With all those folks under one roof, it’s no wonder that Downton is full of workplace drama. Check out my recent Blogging4Jobs post for more on the employees of Downton.