How to Change a Workplace Culture: 9 Strategies
The past few years have given us collectively a great deal to think about in terms of problems with our workplace cultures. Big unionization drives across sectors have gotten us to think about exploitative workplace conditions, the mass shift to remote work and the haphazard move to hybrid work have encouraged us to think about communication norms and boundaries, the George Floyd uprisings showed in new relief how racism and white supremacy show up in our workplaces.
We’ve seen challenges with workplace culture that are annoying, harmful, and downright dangerous. Once you can clearly see the problems with your workplace culture, where do you go from there?
Challenges to Changing a Workplace Culture
It’s not easy to change the way a workplace functions. We’ve explored the reasons why it’s hard to create lasting institutional change.
Scarcity mindsets makes people feel like there’s never enough time, staff, bandwidth to invest in long-term change. It makes us prioritize what feels urgent versus what will sustain us over the long haul.
Risk aversion tells us that the cost of failure is too high to try something new and inertia blocks the pathways for the energy and optimism required to create change.
It’s also hard to create change because of staff turnover. If a workplace is damaging, eventually people will look for a way out instead of a way to shift it.
But perhaps most importantly, the people who suffer the worst effects of a toxic workplace are often the ones who have the least official power to change it. People in leadership or management might not know exactly how bad it is to be an intern at their organization. Or, if they do know, they might just see it as part of paying your dues to climb the ladder.
Not All Workplaces Can Be Changed
Trying to improve a workplace culture is a lot of work over a long period of time. And some workplaces, frankly, are not worth trying to save. They might have structural inequalities baked in too deeply or there might be only a few people who experience it as a toxic workplace. Leadership might be too hostile or you just might be too burnt out.
Before considering which strategies you can use to shift a workplace culture for the better, reflect on if you truly think change is possible. If you think there is legitimately space for you and your coworkers to maneuver together and improve conditions, then we encourage you to try. If you believe that the attempt to make your workplace environment a healthier one is ultimately going to fail and damage your mental well-being in the process, we hope that you prioritize yourself over your workplace.
As our former co-CEO used to say, “work with the willing.” If the will isn’t there, do what you need to do to survive and look for a new job.
Levers For Change Depend on Your Structural Power
We can’t talk about how workers at a company or organization can change a workplace culture without talking about power at a workplace. An administrative assistant doesn’t have the same tools to create change as the CEO does.
People with less organizational power can build solidarity with one another in the form of union, can stage walkouts, and can vote with their feet by leaving a bad workplace. Folks who have more decision-making power can issue top-down changes and hope that they trickle down to the whole workplace and can work to model the changes they want to see.
We don’t believe that it’s only people with institutional power who can create change, but the responsibility for creating a healthy working environment falls more on the shoulders of those in leadership positions.
1. Name the Problems of Your Work Culture Openly
In order to create change at the scale of your whole workplace, everyone needs to be on the same page about what the issues with your workplace culture are. The first step towards a solution is to identify what the problem is and to be able to discuss it with a shared vernacular. This can start small, with one or two trusted coworkers, but will need to expand outwards into a larger conversation if change is really going to happen. You could bring up these issues in a meeting, by submitting something anonymously to be covered during a staff meeting, or just by having many many individual conversations to get everyone on the same page.
2. Create Solidarity From Below
If you don’t have structural decision-making power and are not able to change policy at your workplace, one powerful strategy that you have at your disposal is to create strength in numbers. By banding together with other colleagues, you can push management to take your ideas and your needs more seriously. You can make complaints en masse or even take up mass actions like walkouts in protest of managerial decisions you find harmful.
This is why unions exist! And why we’ve seen big union pushes in art museums over the past few years.
3. Ask For the Changes You Want To See
There’s no guarantee that just asking for changes in the workplace will be effective, but if you have a feeling that your workplace might be open to suggestions for how to do things differently, it’s worth a shot to ask!
For example, we instituted race-based caucusing at Fractured Atlas because two employees suggested it to leadership after using their own professional development funds to attend a training on Undoing Racism workshop by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. This policy and core operating principle of living out Fractured Atlas’s anti-racism anti-oppression values didn’t come as a top-down edict.
If you don’t think that you’ll get much traction by asking, it can sometimes still be good to give it a shot to create documentation of issues raised and leadership’s response.
4. Blow the Whistle
If you haven’t been able to get change by asking for it from leadership, sometimes you need to shed a more public light on this issue. This is why workers might go to the press to detail the issues that they’re seeing.
If you’re looking to use the media to bring attention to the problems in workplace culture, see which journalists have covered workplace issues to yours to see if they accept pitches or tips. Often they’ll note this on their websites or in their Twitter bios.
One way to change a work culture is to leave and share why it is that you’re seeking greener pastures. In an exit interview, you can let an organization know that the problems with the workplace culture is the reason that they are losing your talent, skills, and knowledge. Maybe it’s because the wages aren’t sustainable for people without inherited wealth, maybe it’s the constant microaggressions, or the lack of mentorship for people who don’t feel like joining in on the happy hour boys’ club socializing.
There’s no guarantee that leaving and expressing the true reasons why will result in change in the wake of your departure, but it could help connect isolated incidents into patterns of behavior in leadership’s mind. Or, at the very least, by leaving you can change your relationship to a workplace culture that isn’t healthy for you.
6. Create New Policies and Structures
If you do have the power within your workplace to create new structures or policies to improve work culture, you should! This could mean reviewing vacation policies, family leave policies, hiring practices, standards for meetings, or onboarding guides.
You can’t ensure that implementing policies will immediately shift everyday culture at your workplace, but it can create change over time and give you a shared language to talk about values and behavior expectations.
7. Seek Input
If you’re in management or leadership, you might not know where the biggest pain points for the rest of your team are. Maybe something that you thought would be great for team culture has backfired without your knowledge. If you want to improve workplace culture, you need to openly and honestly invite feedback from the rest of your team. Give them multiple mechanisms to raise concerns or challenges, including anonymous methods. Reflect deeply on what is shared and take seriously that people provide feedback when they think change is possible.
8. Hire To Build the Culture You Want to Cultivate
One way to change a work culture is to hire people who exhibit qualities that are part of the culture that you want to see. Maybe you will hire for specific perspectives, communication styles, or values around working life. Bringing in new members of your team can provide an influx of new energy and can help shift culture into a more positive direction.
However, once you’ve hired new people, you need to proactively support them and help them thrive even in a workplace with significant cultural challenges. You will only perpetuate harm and bad work cultures if you bring people in and then let them be squashed under the problems of the status quo.
You might also need to reflect on the ways that you’re hiring. Is your hiring process designed to bring in candidates who perpetuate the negative aspects of your work culture? How can you reshape the process so that it’s inviting to different kinds of candidates?
9. Model Better Behavior
If you have institutional power, you can make it a point to set an example.
If people are too burnt out and afraid to request vacation, you could both proactively and publicly take vacation so that you can reset yourself. You can also ask when your direct reports will be submitting their time-off requests to you so that they can get a break too. If you’ve noticed that people feel they have to respond to emails or Slacks instantly outside of business hours, make it a point not to get in touch with anyone outside of working hours. You can also set your Slack notifications to Do Not Disturb outside of working hours to make it clear that your expectation is that when work is done for the day, it’s really done.
Scheduled sends for emails and Slacks can help you draft something when it’s fresh in your mind, but avoid pinging anyone else at whatever ungodly hour you’ve thought of it.
Creating cultural changes is hard, at workplaces or in the world at large. We don’t have all the answers, but we have ideas, experience, and a deep belief that we need to talk about these issues if we’re going to solve them. Fractured Atlas is not a perfect organization, but it’s a place that has moved towards becoming a better organization over the years, in part through the use of many of these strategies. Our own journey is ongoing and changing.
For more thoughts on building more equitable, humane workplaces, check out some of our other articles about organizational design.
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.