These Young Workers Are ‘Romanticizing’ the Return to Office
Meena Kirupakaran didn’t think there was anything especially exciting about her job in publishing. She had an hourlong commute each way, including a 40-minute train ride. The HarperCollins Canada office in Toronto, where she worked as a marketing coordinator, didn’t have cold brew on tap or free lunches.
But when she took some shots of the downtown area around her building, the views from her floor and the shelves of books decorating the space and edited them into a TikTok video — adding gentle music — she started to see her job, and office life in general, in a new way. So did her viewers. Overnight, the video, which she posted in August, was watched more than 100,000 times, Ms. Kirupakaran said, and it has since accumulated a couple of hundred thousand more views.
“People in the comments were like, ‘Manifesting this,’” Ms. Kirupakaran, 23, said. “And I was like, this is literally me taking snapshots of what I do at work.”
Well, sort of. It was work, romanticized. That is: Ms. Kirupakaran was arranging scenes from her everyday routine that made office life seem tranquil and inviting. Even a train ride into the city, which she showed in a later video, could be made to seem more pleasant with “Dreams” by the Cranberries as the soundtrack.
Ms. Kirupakaran’s viral success sprang from the collision of a few trends: She is a Generation Z office worker, more enamored of the daily grind than some of her older colleagues, in part because the physical office remains a novelty. Ms. Kirupakaran finished college and entered the work force during the pandemic, meaning that, like many of her peers, she had never worked in an office before her job at HarperCollins. And because she’s a TikTok user, her positive perspective on office life gets broadcast onto one of social media’s largest platforms.
Ms. Kirupakaran uses the rubric of a “day in the life” to show her followers around the office and take them to work events. The genre often includes skin care regimens, eating habits or city-specific excursions. TikTokers also make day-in-the-life videos of their work lives, deploying the same editing style and careful curation to cast their office jobs in a more flattering light. As many workers continue to chafe against mandates to return to the office, videos like Ms. Kirupakaran are a stark contrast.
Some are more modest, showing lunches eaten alone in gray cubicles and office coffee whose quality we can guess at, while others flaunt luxe décor and amenities like gyms and catered dining. But the practice of “romanticizing,” which encourages gratitude for the most mundane parts of our lives, means that almost every office job gets the same treatment on TikTok. Across the spectrum, these videos act as positive messaging for companies trying to persuade their employees that it’s worth returning.
On TikTok, “a lot of content creators spread the message: Don’t work in person!” Ms. Kirupakaran said. “But I do think there’s something beautiful when you romanticize going into work.”
Alison Chen had some experience going into an office, but that was for internships she had in college before Covid. When she moved a year and a half ago for a new job as a product designer at Microsoft, in a city where she didn’t know anyone, the office helped her make friends, she said.
In May, she posted a video titled “today my office reopened,” taking viewers along with her on her commute and showing her grabbing a coffee, eating a salmon roll with her team and going to an ice cream social and then a happy hour. The video has more than 143,000 views. For comparison, Ms. Chen’s recent “Day in Life: Rainy Day in SF” video has about 2,500 views; most of her videos have between a couple of thousand and 20,000. Ms. Kirupakaran’s non-publishing content on TikTok usually attracts a few thousand views.
“I’ve heard my friends tell me they started coming into the office more after they’ve seen that it’s really fun and pretty productive and you can meet people during the day,” Ms. Chen, 23, said.
One of those friends was Rachitha Tholasi, another 23-year-old who works at Microsoft. Ms. Tholasi didn’t know about Ms. Chen’s day-in-the-life TikToks when they met one day last fall at lunch. Now she is sometimes present when Ms. Chen shoots scenes, and she enjoys seeing her experiences in the office reflected back to her. Over time, their office on Market Street has earned a reputation for having a younger, fun-loving demographic, she said.
“It’s funny because when I first started coming a year ago, there were maybe five people my age coming in,” Ms. Tholasi said. “Now we have to use at least two large lunch tables or even more to fit everyone.”
The office day-in-the-life videos overlap with another corner of the TikTok universe: “CareerTok,” where creators give advice about landing a job in a certain industry or tell viewers how to write a cover letter or edit their résumés. Ms. Chen and other creators attributed the success of their office TikToks to young people’s curiosity about what it’s like to be in the work force and how to choose a career path.
Madeline Edwards, a 24-year-old who has made day-in-the-life videos at two jobs, said that when she was growing up, movies like “The Devil Wears Prada” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” were her first impressions of what being an adult with an office job would be like. Those films portrayed either highly specific work environments (Vogue magazine) or highly unrealistic situations that also happened to take place in the world of magazines (trying to get a man to break up with you as an experiment for an article).
Now Ms. Edwards and other TikTokers have the power to influence how young people view corporate life, and the images they create may be skewed in their own ways.
The portrayals are largely positive. Some of the videos that Ms. Edwards made when she worked for Uber have been mistaken for company-sponsored content, she said. Though she identified herself only as “working in tech,” Uber’s logo made cameos. Ms. Edwards said Uber, which did not respond to requests for comment, had no involvement in the videos.
Still, the content can function as free marketing for companies and as recruiting tools, showing potential applicants a kind of highlight reel of what is attractive about these workplaces. While some creators said their co-workers or supervisors were generally aware that they were shooting TikTok videos about their workplaces, they maintained that their employers had no role. Their bosses, they said, weren’t even really on TikTok.
Probably. But many large corporations like Target and Chipotle already use the platform for recruiting. And even if companies aren’t explicitly asking their young employees to spread upbeat messaging about their jobs online, employers know it’s happening and happy to see it proliferate, experts said.
“Companies have seen this trend, and they’re trying to use it,” said Angela Copeland, the head of marketing at Recruiter.com, a platform that companies use to find workers. “People at large companies are aware of what people post about them, and they care because they don’t want people posting negative content.”
At Recruiter, for instance, she and her colleagues have tried to encourage employers who are enthusiastic about the company’s mission to share videos and other content online.
“When I talk to folks, if they seem excited I will absolutely bring it up to them, or if they do it on their own I will encourage them, or ask them how I can help promote the video,” Ms. Copeland said.
(HarperCollins and Microsoft did not return requests for comment.)
The flip side of romanticizing one’s office life is that not everybody finds these portrayals of the 9-to-5 grind convincing. A frequent comment on the videos is that TikTokers seem rarely to be working. Shots of them sitting at their desks are but a blip in a collage of coffee breaks and office events.
The videos can also gloss over working conditions in certain industries that may not be so camera-ready: In the United States, HarperCollins workers are striking for better pay and benefits. And in the past month, tech giants like Meta and Twitter have laid off thousands. Microsoft, where Ms. Chen works, told investors that it would hire fewer people this quarter.
“‘Real’ is a tricky word to use when we’re talking about social media, because even right now with BeReal or this weird, unedited vibe we’re going for on Instagram — it’s still curated, and we still get to choose what we’re showing,” said Ahsia Godfrey, 21, who recently started her first office job as a social media manager at a nonprofit in Dana Point, Calif. Her day-in-the-life videos usually show her waking up early, brushing her teeth, making her bed and then working from her cubicle.
“You can be real and you can be honest, but at the same time it’s like, what’s really the point of what those people are posting?” Ms. Godfrey continued, referring to the videos that focus more on office perks. “I think it’s just to show that they have a really cool workplace.”
TikTokers are still hedging their bets on the office. Many creators who make day-in-the-life videos of office work also use the format to document their days working from home in sweatpants.
Ms. Kirupakaran now works as a freelancer, helping manage book campaigns for publishing companies — primarily remotely at the moment. She said she would probably resume shooting day-in-the-life videos if she started working in an office again.
When she didn’t feel like commuting into her job at HarperCollins, she said, she looked back at her day-in-the-life videos and remembered the “great things about the atmosphere and the job.”
“It helped me on days when I didn’t want to go in,” she said.