How to change a small office culture?
March 7, 2013 9:32 PM   Subscribe

I work in an office of about 25 people, which is run by just one big boss & the hours are atrocious. I'm not the only one who thinks so, but at least 2 people have been fired in the past for daring to complain directly. How can we, the employees, either start a productive conversation with our boss about this, or somehow generate grassroots change?

_The general background:
I work in a desirable field, with way more job seekers than jobs. Bad hours are fairly common, but my current office is really out in its own league. Per the employee handbook, our standard hour are 8:30am to 6:30pm. Which is already kind of bad, but what's worse is literally no one leaves on-time at 6:30, even during fairly calm weeks (which are rare). When deadlines are looming, hours quickly escalate to 8:30am - 10, midnight and even later. Our office calendar is in constant flux and important (and unimportant) internal meetings, and even client meetings are regularly scheduled after 6:30 pm, often with less than an hour notice. Staff are frequently roped into "assisting" on project late in the day and end up having to stay until late at night with no notice at all. Planning activities for after work is impossible. We are all salaried, so there is no paid overtime.

The office is a one-man show. There is one "big boss" and we all work for him and he has the final word on everything. There is a layer of three more senior staff, but they seem to accept our current methods. Then there's everyone else. There is not a lot of hierarchy beyond "us" and "big boss".

In the past, people who have had a problem with this have either left of their own accord or been fired. I actually enjoy my job, when the hours are not being stupid and would like to keep it. My boss also really likes me, so I have more leverage than others. I've been working there for about a year. I have a longer tenure than about half our employees currently.

_The problem, as I see it: We currently have about 20 active projects in an office of 25 people; most of them are on accelerated schedules. Big Boss is generally way overcommitted and so his schedule just slides later and later and there's no stopping it. We are at its mercy and expected to be available when he is.
Problem 1: we promise very agressive schedules and then in order to deliver, we have to work a bunch of overtime.
Problem 2: Big Boss is a bit of a control freak about project direction. He cannot let anything related to direction go to clients without several rounds of vetting.
Problem 3: Big Boss goes to about 90% of the client meetings, plus business development and other misc. things. This means he's in meetings literally all day. It's next impossible to get internal feedback from him without hovering around his desk with a bunch of printouts in hand and a 30 second script memorized. When project teams are more than two people, the problem is greatly exacerbated because this method of hover & trap doesn't work with so many people. This means most internal feedback on larger & more important project happens after 6:30 at night, when he doesn't have other meetings scheduled. Because of his all day meetings and point 4 below, often these internal meetings get pushed later and later throughout the day until at last, they happen at like, 8:30pm.
Problem 4: Big Boss has a family who would like to actually see him occasionally. So, since he has little kids, Big Boss sometimes will take 2 hours in the afternoon or early evening to see his kids and then come back. Thus pushing the evening meeting schedule back even further.

I've spoken with several peers about how much this sucks, and none of us really know how to deal with it. Writing this out it seems like the best option would be to approach one of the senior staff and diplomatically express concerns... but I'm wondering what the best strategy is? Changing office culture is really difficult, especially when it's driven by the boss. There are also a couple (3 or 4) people who have worked at my office for 4-5 years and seems totally fine with the deal, they really buy into it. The rest of us are not so much. We've expanded significantly (like, 2x) in the last 6 months and it just seems totally unprofessional to expect a 25 person office to work like this. When you're 5 people you can be THAT invested in the work; when you're 25 not so much. My boss is an OK guy, he's good at what he does, but this management style is just not OK and is completely disrespectful of our time outside of work.

What is the best way to approach this problem, knowing that everyone else who has had a problem with it has either just left or been fired?
posted by annie o to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What is the best way to approach this problem, knowing that everyone else who has had a problem with it has either just left or been fired?

I think this probably tells you what the answer is, unfortunately.
posted by empath at 9:50 PM on March 7, 2013 [22 favorites]

Basically, a workplace culture like this doesn't change until it starts to impact the bottom line, and it sounds like they're making money hand over fist if they've expanded twice in the past 6 months. In a situation like this, you have to consider what your job prospects are if you are fired or are pushed out. If you have job opportunities waiting for you, then sure, talk to him about hours, about more money or about any other benefits, but you have to be prepared to leave the company if you do. Probably the worst thing you could do for yourself personally is try to organize the office, which is basically what you're asking about here. Bosses do not appreciate that. Hell, even talking to your fellow co-workers about working conditions can be a problem for you, let alone bringing it up to management.

How replaceable are you? And how replaceable is this job for you? Those are the questions you need to answer before bringing up work conditions with the boss, imo.
posted by empath at 9:57 PM on March 7, 2013

Plain and simple, you are being exploited for the benefit of the owner/boss. It's up to you whether you want to keep bending over or take a stance against this (sounds like there are some legal issues here about which you could consult with a labor attorney). Nobody here can decide for you what you should do.
posted by Dansaman at 10:29 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

this management style is just not OK
If your boss thinks that it is, anyone who disagrees is fired, and your occupation is not unionized or regulated then it doesn't matter if his management is OK or not... it is how things are.

Things could be better, you see the potential to improve things for everyone, but making your boss aware of the problems you mentioned along with improving and changing up the place isn't your job and there are two recent ex employees who are evidence of that. Whether everything you said above is dead right or not doesn't matter- it isn't your job and you will not be rewarded for making it so.
posted by variella at 10:34 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've listed many problems, which all seem to revolve around your boss' high-energy, high-output, and outcome-oriented personality, which isn't changing soon. You could approach senior staff who would then - only under the pressure of significant organization and effort on the part of you and those colleagues who agree with you, with critical others probably not staying quiet on the side, but angling to stay past the end of those 8:30 meetings - take it to... him? It's his company, he run and people it how he likes.

I guess, take what you can from this experience for as long as you can stand it, and maybe look for something more life-honouring in the not-too-distant future.
posted by nelljie at 10:37 PM on March 7, 2013

Even with no shortage of people willing to work there, perhaps you could reframe it as changes made to retain the best and brightest staff and become more profitable by avoiding the churn of turnover and new hires needing to get up to speed. However even if this works, my guess is that despite making an honest effort and changes, he would soon slip back into his old habits, without something or someone to check those habits whenever they reappear.
posted by anonymisc at 10:43 PM on March 7, 2013

The owner/boss has gotten himself into a zone where he is too frantic to consider any change.

Your company may be profitable now, but that pace tends to produce failure.

You are not in a position to change this or get through to owner/boss in a any meaningful way at this point.

My suggestion is that you seek other employment. When you have a viable offer in hand, you may be able to express your concerns and be heard.

Even if you are promised change and stay on at this firm, change likely will not happen.

posted by jbenben at 11:02 PM on March 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

I agree with the others that change will not happen until there is some kind of a crisis, and in the medium term, the best solution is to find another job in a more sane environment. Te bottom line is that people do what works, and this is working for him.

In the meantime, though, you can gain some sanity by setting a few boundaries. I once brought some sanity to my schedule by telling a workaholic boss that I had to leave "early" (actually on time) for twice-weekly physio appointments. (It was true for a few weeks but I never told her when the appointments ended.) She did not like it, but since I was a good performer and she liked me, and I made it clear that not fixing the problem could mean I was unable to work for weeks, she could not object. Perhaps you and your co-workers are taking classes or have family obligations that should be nonnegotiable? In my case, I did not discuss much, just said "I have to do this in order to avoid knee surgery and then did it.

Also, you and your colleagues should just start leaving on time during calm periods. Don't wait around and ask for permission. It will be hard for him to call a last-minute meeting after quitting time if nobody is there. And if you all agree to do it, he won't be able to fire you all.
posted by rpfields at 12:27 AM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Are you working for my previous employer?

Here's what happened at my former company: after years of running a company like this, my "big boss" started to burn out. But because she was a control freak, she wouldn't let anyone else take over for her, she alienated clients with her outbursts and erratic scheduling, quality of work suffered, we lost our biggest client, everyone with any talent left, and half the remainder were fired.

This is no way to run a company. There is no long-term future for you here. It is highly likely your rapid expansion will be followed by an equally rapid implosion, because as you have correctly observed, this management style does not scale. Find another job.

All that said, here are a few short-term coping strategies:

* When the boss leaves in the afternoon to see his family, can you take an extended lunch as well?
* Schedule after-work commitments like they are vacation days. Announce them a week ahead of time, remind people they are upcoming, and line up people to cover for you in your absence.
* Is there by chance also a culture of big boss favoritism, and needing to be present at every meeting lest you miss out on the good projects? You can just not play along with this. On all of your projects, deputize 1 or 2 people to speak for the entire team, and rotate this burden.
* Aggressively leave on time whenever you have no emergencies. The boss likes you - use that advantage to normalize leaving the office instead of waiting for something to blow up.
* Are you working the whole time, or are you spending a lot of time hanging around "in case"? If it's the latter, find someone you can alternate with to stay late, and take turns covering for the other.
* Can you log on later, or call in to late meetings? Does everyone have to be at the office?

Best of luck to you.
posted by psycheslamp at 12:35 AM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

This sounds like the 2004 EA Spouse story. There may be a basis for a lawsuit, and if the fired employees are the named plaintiffs, you wouldn't be risking your job.
posted by Sophont at 1:45 AM on March 8, 2013

You leave, and found a competing company with the working culture you want.
posted by scruss at 4:44 AM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wow. This sounds just like a place I worked out of college. The answer is to leave and to look for jobs and companies that emphasize work/life balance and benefits. The next time you interview, pay attention to whether the people who would be at your level have pictures of little kids on their desks or other evidence of a life outside of work. You can also ask how "family friendly" the company is in interviews.

As a comparison, when I left my awful job, a lot of other people at my small company did as well. We all went to other jobs where the hours were saner and couldn't believe we put up with Big Boss' crap for so long. What amazes me is that Big Boss' small company is still in business and seems to be exactly the same despite "winning" awards for being a great place to work in the small city in which its based. (If you ever want proof that city business journa best place to work awards are BS, this is a good example). If you company has been in business for awhile, I would guess that this cycle of burning through employees is well established.

Protect your own sanity and find a place that values you enough as an individual to let you enjoy a life outside of work. You deserve better!

Feel free to PM me if you'd like to talk specifics.
posted by JuliaKM at 6:22 AM on March 8, 2013

Your boss isn't interested in making things better for his staff. He doesn't care. So anything you do will only get you shown the door. You can't fix what the guy who owns the deal doesn't want fixed.

So start looking for another job.

The only way a guy like this learns that his methods are shit is when it affects him negatively. So far, it hasn't and it may never happen.

You can either wait around for that to happen, (and why WOULD you?) Or, you can change your own situation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:03 AM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Brief follow up - thanks for all the response. I am aware how ridiculous the whole thing is, and have usually managed to protect myself from the bs more than others - I do leave on time when I can and generally am up-front about what I can and cannot do. I would like to stay in this job because the projects are very high quality and I want to keep doing work like this; I'm also making significant progress in my personal career goals (and at a rapid pace thanks to the stupid hours). Finally, because of the recession I haven't been employed anywhere longer than a year until now and I feel like it would be a not-so-great move to have a series of 6mo-1 year stints as my last four years of work history. I do anticipate leaving this job in the next 12-18 months.

So, you're all probably right I should suck it up and get what I want out of it and keep my head down until I'm ready to leave; I think when I wrote the question I was thinking more along the lines of a start-up transitioning to a more stable culture - how that might be done. If anyone has thoughts on that, I'd still be interested.
posted by annie o at 7:14 AM on March 8, 2013

It sounds like having all the projects needing approval held up until after hours is a real bottleneck, so maybe you all could get together and suggest a half hour window every day when the boss makes himself available to approve things. Could be the same time every day, so people know if they have something for his approval, they need to have it done by then, and the boss needs to not schedule meetings for that time. Just suggest it as, hey, we all really wanted to try this (if that is true) and wondered if you could be up for it, thought it could really help productivity. Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 7:43 AM on March 8, 2013

I was thinking along the lines of what you posted in your update. I don't have any idea if this would work, but you could try setting up a few fake email addresses and sending all the executives some articles that talk about Project Management, transitioning from small to large company, work/life balance, how delegation can make you a better boss, etc.

If there is any chance that the boss just doesn't know about this stuff - maybe he really is overwhelmed with how to transition from small to large - it might work. But that's not likely. I'm sure he's heard it all before and he doesn't believe that HIS company is like any of the statistical examples.
posted by CathyG at 7:45 AM on March 8, 2013

Your boss's fundamental problem is one of limited attention span. It's a classic mistake of beginning/junior managers. It can manifest in many ways, but control freak/micromanagement is very typical.

A person can realistically only have 4-6 people reporting to them, maximum. To do otherwise is not sustainable in the long-term. That means a structure, designating project leads or managers. Trust is a huge problem in letting go. Too often the boss is really good at the job and just can't handle see anyone else do it, because his employees just don't do it exactly right. Flat organizational structures are symptoms of the problem.

What he needs to do is switch away from the day to day and focus on things like sales, market strategy and oversight of results rather than day-to-day management. He needs to trust his lieutenants and give them autonomy in their own projects.

It sounds to me like this ship is sinking. Look to get out before things get bad.
posted by bonehead at 7:51 AM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

My workplace used to be like this. Insane deadlines, basically because management didn't have the first damn clue about what the people on the floor were doing.

What changed things?

The entire team basically saying, look, this is unreasonable, unsustainable, and has a massive negative impact on quality. Either things change or you'll lose your entire team and with it your extremely lucrative contract.

(Except not quite in so many words.)

It worked, mostly, but I still have to remind management on a regular basis that I'm not a machine, thank you.

Unless you have that kind of leverage (remember, it was the entire team, not just one person) AND your management is willing to listen to reason (doesn't sound like it from what's posted here) you'd be better off looking for a new place to work.
posted by Tamanna at 10:34 AM on March 8, 2013

Your chances of changing office culture are not good if everyone who has tried in the past has been fired.

Can you appeal to the clients here? I dont understand why they are even entertaining the idea of meetings at 6pm or later. Can you suggest that they make earlier appointments-- ie: Hi Bob, how about a 10am meeting? I know you need to spend time with the family, so I don't want to give you a late appointment *wink wink nudge nudge*

It won't change your entire situation, but even a small change may make a difference.
posted by lovelygirl at 11:44 AM on March 8, 2013

posted by TheNewWazoo at 12:34 PM on March 8, 2013

Yep, this is exactly what unions are for. Find whatever union is closest to the area you work in, contact someone there and tell them your story. They'll probably be more than happy to get the people in your workplace signed up. The point is to enough people to join that it will become impractical to fire all of you.
posted by Acheman at 1:01 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

All of you who hate the environment could leave en masse, take clients with you, and start your own firm.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2013

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