Best of the Fractured Atlas Blog 2020: Workplace Culture and Work. Shouldn't. Suck.
The Fractured Atlas team thinks and writes a lot about working; how we work, how we see others structuring their workplaces, how we think the nature of work can and should change in changing times. Often, this comes through Work. Shouldn’t. Suck. Two of the pieces of workplace culture that we have focused on a lot over the years are remote working and anti-racism in the workplace.
By the beginning of 2020, we had transitioned to a fully-distributed workplace, a rarity in our sector. Then, a few months later, almost all office jobs had to go remote. We shared our experiences with remote working with new urgency this year.
When the BLM uprisings happened over the summer, we saw fellow organizations grappling with how racism shows up in their workplace and how to take concrete steps to mitigate its worst effects. We don’t have the perfect answers, but we’ve shared what we have.
We’ve also covered tips for job applicants and inside looks at our own internal processes.
Here are some of our favorite writings about workplaces in 2020.
“We recognize how challenging it is to advocate for yourself in a toxic work environment. It can feel like your job is on the line if you speak up, or that you will alienate yourself from the rest of your team if you try to improve working conditions.
Ultimately, micromanaging is a managerial problem, but there are ways to mitigate the effect on other workers. If you feel like a manager is managing you too closely (even from afar), you should ask questions. Ask what they are concerned about or worried for...
By figuring out where your manager’s concern is rooted, you can work together to find some common ground. If they are concerned that you’ll start missing deadlines, you can suggest a recurring check-in to talk about progress rather than get bombarded with emails or messages at unpredictable times. If they are concerned that you’re slacking off during the day, propose a daily correspondence where you lay out your plan for the day. This can be in a daily standup call or Slack or an end-of-day email.”
“A former coworker of mine told me that it takes a minimum of 6 months to adjust to remote working. And that’s under ideal circumstances. The same mental energy you’d usually be able to apply to creative problem solving is definitely getting used elsewhere. So regardless of virtual working or office working, your creative juices would likely be taking a hit these days no matter what.
Try to pay close attention to how your brain works over the course of a day working at home. Do you find yourself more energized first thing in the morning, right after you’ve had the right amount of caffeine? Do you need to settle into “work mode” a bit more at home than you do in an office to start thinking? Then, you can better adjust your schedule to find your creative groove and keep it.
For example, I know that my mind is sharpest in the morning, so I try to do most of my writing then. So, if I can save some of my less brain-intensive work for the afternoon, I will. That way, I don’t find myself trying to write through a 3:00 energy slump, feeling like a complete fraud. Although recently I’ve been getting a surge of creative energy around 3:30 or 4:00. I can’t account for the new energy shift, but I’m incorporating it into my work schedule.”
“For some, working in an office provides safety and security that they might not have at home. They might not have the physical space to set up an office or the capacity to install fast enough internet. And, please, please, please as you proceed with plans, don’t further burden people by expecting them to disclose, or to divulge this if you ask them. Craft plans from a place where this might be an issue, and continue to iterate towards solutions.
Research also shows two significant differences when people work remotely: (1) they work longer hours because they don’t have the physical cue of arriving and departing the office to punctuate their date, and (2) people become isolated and lonely.
As employees, we need to work to help create our own boundaries and routines, when possible, to delineate when we’re “on the clock,” and when we’re not. As leaders and managers, we need to be proactively mindful of what might happen when in the virtual setting we send requests outside of “normal” business hours. Previously people couldn’t do anything about that email sent at 9PM until they got to their office computer in the morning. Consider using a tool that allows you to schedule emails to send during business hours so there’s no question, and no implicit or explicit pressure, for people to respond outside of work hours.”
“It’s easier to assume trust and then correct mistakes than it is to assume failure and try to plan around it. That’s like trying to guess which link in a chain is going to break: you’ll exhaust yourself and your resources before the break happens and then will be out of luck. If something does fail, you can then address it and correct for it when it happens.
Are the things that need to get done getting done? Are people consistently delivering their deliverables? Are people feeling satisfactorily supported? If so, then trust that your employees are doing what they need to do to be productive. If not, check in and make adjustments as needed.”
“The wage gap is an effect of racism, and one of the ways to close that gap is to make wages less of a secret within workplaces and across industries. If we all know how much we are being compensated compared to others, we can collectively work towards pay equity…
Simply put, salary transparency is rare because it’s perceived as being bad for the bottom line. Businesses and organizations operate by creating surplus value, and one of the key ways that surplus value is created is by underpaying workers. If workers don’t know that they are being underpaid compared to their coworkers or the industry standard, they won’t know that they can and should advocate for better wages.
It is also considered gauche or impolite to talk about money. It feels impolite to inquire and uncomfortable to share your own finances. But this cultural norm is actually a structure of oppression. If we never talk frankly about money, we never find out that people are able to accept low-paying jobs and unpaid internships because they have inherited wealth or a family who can financially support them in the early phases of their career. If we never talk about money, we can’t learn about who was able to graduate from college without debt and who is sending money to their family while paying down student loans. If we don’t talk about money, we can think that everyone is on the same, level playing field. Which we know isn’t the case.”
“We are at a moment where many white leaders are starting to see for the first time in their lives how racism and systems of oppression have been built into the very organizations we lead, often at the DNA level. For leaders, understanding racism and oppression and its impacts on our work has now moved to the top of the list as a core leadership competency. Why?
If you’re not actively engaged in anti-racist work personally and internally, how can you and your organization understand the nuances of racial and social justice issues that are needed today? At its core, this probably boils down to leading by example. How are we supposed to engage in challenging conversations around racism in our organizations if we don’t understand the nuances of how and why racism shows up in our workplaces? If we don’t understand it first, how can we help set strategy and direction for the organization in a way that won’t inadvertently undermine the work? If we, particularly we white men, are not on this journey and doing the challenging work of understanding how things like white privilege, white fragility, and the characteristics of white supremacy culture show up in our lives and workplaces, we are shirking a core responsibility and should rightfully be left behind as the world moves on beyond us. It’s impossible to have an organization or an institution oriented towards social justice and equity without an internal dedication to those same values for its workers.”
“The COVID haircut recognizes that we might need to take what was possible for our team to accomplish pre-COVID and shave off 10-15%. We’re losing that productivity because people are caring for loved ones, possibly homeschooling their children, and generally trying to survive a pandemic that’s much bigger than any one individual job. The COVID haircut means we might need to add more team members if we still plan on accomplishing the same things. It might mean we need to scale back our assumptions about what’s possible, even during a time when we’re facing the real possibility of so many companies closing up shop and needing to do more
I recognize that what I’m saying here with this last point is really challenging. The cultural sector is largely shuttered. Except for a few bright spots, charitable contributions are likely to take a hit as donors shift their giving or tighten their belts for an extended period of uncertainty. And yet, if we’re going to survive, let alone truly thrive, time is not on our side to figure out solutions in the face of non-existent tours, canceled Nutcracker seasons that bankroll the rest of the year, and no real idea about when artists and audience will feel comfortable gathering again in indoor spaces. How can we work hard enough to survive as organizations and as a sector, while remaining compassionate and humane to ourselves and our colleagues who are dealing with fallout from several compounding apocalypses? (Related: And what can we learn from our colleagues and communities who have effectively been balancing these challenges for years?)”
“Inappropriate work questions might come up as a formal question during the interview process, or they might come up more casually. If you’re killing time during a Zoom interview waiting for others to arrive, an interviewer might ask about where you are calling from, what your housing situation is like, who you live with. They might be trying to make conversation, but it also might require you to divulge information that could put your application at risk.
These kinds of questions aren’t fraught for everyone. In particular, if you are a straight, white, cis, Christian, wealthy man. Questions about if you have or are thinking of starting a family hit differently for women than they do for men, and differently still if you know that you want a family and will need to use IVF, surrogacy, or other potentially expensive healthcare technologies. Questions about who you live with or what your housing is like are different for people who are housing insecure than people who own their own homes or apartments, as well as for people who live in queer or polyamorous households. These questions aren’t disqualifying or risky for people with structural privilege, but they can be for people who don’t have those privileges.”
“People really want to build lasting institutions and I think that's really problematic. That's one of the things I love about fiscally sponsored projects because, to me, they’re the core of what it means to iterate.You have creators working on projects that explicitly aren’t meant to be permanent…
Iteration requires an understanding of what it means to stop doing it. I love pilots and I love time limited projects. Once you go out and say “I’m building a nonprofit to do this thing” or “this is a permanent program that we're going to make sustainable and scale,” you get stuck. When I was building Artist Campaign School [ACS], I didn't say any of those words. No sustainability, no scale, no nothing. I think some people think that's being afraid to commit, but I think it's really important to be thoughtful.
You’ve gotta cut your losses when it's not fun anymore. Work with the willing. If it's not fun, if people aren't trying to work with you, get out of it.”
Much of our writing on workplace culture intersects with our interests in anti-racism and anti-oppression and other big ideas for the arts and for artists. We hope you’ll check out our year-end roundups on those topics from the past year, in addition to information about fundraising, and some of our favorite tips, tools, and interviews.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.