How do you preserve a work culture? This question has been on my mind recently as I watched a number of beloved colleagues leave, and I am shortly to leave the Young Vic myself after well over a decade.
It can be easy to take for granted that the culture of a building will last forever, especially as I have been fortunate enough to work in a supportive institution with a mission to do the best possible work with the best possible people, and a clear understanding that the best people are not all white, heteronormative, cis-gendered middle-class folks.
But the ecosystem of any building is fragile and needs to be cared for. A supportive and inclusive work culture does not happen by accident. It requires rigorous hiring practices: interviewers who recognise their prejudices and unconscious biases and who look deeper for the potential of the person sitting in front of them rather than the ‘plug in and play’ comfort of their previous experience.
‘Disrupting a stale work culture and preserving a good work culture are the same, and the solution to both is representation’
Under the pressure of budgets, staffing costs or time, people can easily lean into the comfortable choice: someone who looks right, sounds right, seems to have the right background. It could take no more than one swift churn of staff to overturn years of excellent representation in the workforce.
At the same time, with the news that Madani Younis is leaving the Southbank Centre after only 10 months, and many now asking why this has happened, my mind has switched to the reverse question. How do you disrupt a work culture? And why, if a progressive work culture is so fragile, is a stale work culture so robust?
And of course the solution to both issues is the same. To disrupt a toxic culture and to preserve a positive culture you need to be constantly pushing past comfort and seeking engagement and excellence. A thriving work culture relies on bringing different voices together, asking uncomfortable questions, speaking truth to power without fear and resisting complacency.
When there is trust in a building these things occur seemingly without effort. People feel confident to fail up, to try new things – they embrace difference and the result is that the many voices brought together create important, award-winning work.
Where there is insecurity or unease, people do not feel able to push past their comfort levels. When they are punished for speaking out, their energy – which should be put into the work – is instead spent covering their rears and keeping themselves safe. How is meaningful work supposed to thrive in that environment?
So, disrupting a stale work culture and preserving a good work culture are the same, and the solution to both is representation – working consciously to overcome our biases of race and gender, class and culture. Embracing difference as a source of strength and respecting the voices of people with different life experiences. And sometimes those at the top stepping aside for the next generation.
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek