Education

HBO’s In-Person ‘Industry’ and the New Hybrid Academic Workplace


HBO’s Industry is the best show on paid TV/streaming that you are likely not watching. Industry is among the TV genres described as “confident subcultures” in a recent Atlantic analysis of season 2.

In the case of Industry, the confident subculture is that of investment banking. The show’s creators, former bankers, bring us into the language, norms, rhythms, and structures of finance and wealth management.

While watching Industry in August, my mind is mostly on what September will look like in our academic workplaces.

Unlike academic work, investment banking (at least as depicted in Industry) has near completely returned to an in-person activity. Employees are densely stacked together, meetings are face-face, and only a single employee of the fictional Pierpoint bank continues to wear a mask.

The way that the bankers work together in Industry has some familiarity with parts of pre-pandemic academic work life. (Save for the sex, the drugs, the glamour, the fancy clothing, the restaurants, the parties, and the money).

What is familiar from Industry is academic work in which the people doing the work did so mostly together in a shared physical space.

In my career, I’ve worked at two institutions developing online degree programs. The teams working on those mostly digital degrees did so from a physical place. Like the hedge fund traders and private wealth managers of Industry, we did our academic work office to office, desk to desk, and face to face.

The 2022-2023 academic year will, alas, not play out like an episode of Industry. Unless the showrunners who run the show make a major pivot to Zoom, the workplace depicted in Industry will little resemble our new academic workplace.

All of us, including me (especially me), will have to figure out how to do the work of higher ed across and between the physical and digital divide.

We will be on campus and on Zoom, in our office and on Slack, and in classrooms and on Canvas. The space between residential and online education will blur.

The in-person, hybrid, and remote work labels will sound anachronistic—echoes from an earlier, simpler, and clearer time of pre-pandemic academic work.

Some of us who have been doing this academic thing for a long time may wish for everything to return to what we see as “normal.” Back to the days when we could count a critical mass of those employed by the university wandering around campus daily. Back to when virtual meetings were rare and when most conversations took place in physical offices, conference rooms, hallways, and quadrangles. Back to the world of Industry, where interactions between co-workers and colleagues occur almost exclusively face-to-face.

The work ahead for higher ed work is to figure out how to make our confident subculture thrive in this new era of the blended and hybrid university.

What are you watching?

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