Changing workplace culture

Remote working with coffee and book


Workplace culture – what is it and how do you change it? It seems one of those things that is hard to pin down, but it is at the root of a lot of the discussions are flexible working and the gender pay gap these days. I was speaking to someone the other day about the gender pay gap and how some of the companies who have won lots of awards often don’t have the greatest of stats. That’s not necessarily because they are not doing anything – they know they have a problem and they are trying to address it.

But how do you know if that is working because culture change takes time? Any slight change in personnel can have a big impact on your figures and suggest things are going backwards when they are actually just taking root. There is all sorts of programmes and initiatives to change culture and research suggests many are not as successful as might be supposed. The problem is that there is no one silver bullet. Just as there is no silver bullet for work life balance. I’ve sat on webinars where I think people are hoping that there is one. If there is I haven’t found it. What there is is something that more or less works for you and your family and it might take a while to find it.

There is more and more research around about the different initiatives on culture change – some of it conflicting. It seems, for instance, that mentoring is not a silver bullet and that sponsorship, where senior people advocate for more junior colleagues, is more effective. Yet there is a lot of interesting work going on around mentoring, for instance, mentoring of managers around managing flexible teams or reverse mentoring where a senior member of staff mentors a junior one and vice versa. One-off unconscious bias sessions or any kind of one-off sessions don’t seem to work that well unless part of a sustained approach – and they can be counterproductive. Yet some people do find them eye-opening, depending on how they are conducted. That might trigger changes of approach, although managers are quickly engulfed by day to day concerns.

So what changes culture? Some organisations which have great policies and toolkits on flexible working do not have flexible cultures. One person at an award-winning company told me that she left because, although they had great policies, most of the people in her department were 20 somethings keen to establish their careers and happy to work all hours. That set the culture. It may be that millennials, as we are constantly told, will change all of this. Or perhaps it requires more multigenerational teams, flatter structures or mixing things up in some other way.

In the end, though, it comes down to bread and butter things like management training. Management plays a key role in setting and modelling expectations, but managers are themselves subject to enormous expectations. It takes confidence to question how those expectations are best met. Challenging established norms, including in how career progression happens [does it always have to be a linear progression, for instance?], is an ongoing and uphill battle. The people I have met who get the need to change workplace culture are well aware of that.

*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of

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