Workplace organising - how to start changing work for the better

Published date
14 Feb 2018
Everyone deserves to be happy at work. We spend a lot of time there during our lives. So, it's not too much to ask to have fair and decent working conditions.
© Jess Hurd/

Corporations like McDonald’s and Amazon are rightfully starting to get some bad press for the way they treat their staff. But these aren’t one-off cases. Many workers aren’t treated well at work, and plenty aren’t even paid enough to live on. And because of insecure contracts, a lot workers aren’t able to challenge their bosses without fear of repercussions.

Challenging bad conditions and bosses can be hard on your own. If you dread going to work every day or are coming out of a nightmare meeting, it’s hard to work out how to change things for the better.

Working together with colleagues makes it easier and usually produces better outcomes. That's why unions need to help workers in non-unionised workplaces to organise. Because drawing on the collective strength of the workers is the best way to ensure campaigns focus on the issues workers care about and puts forward the solutions they want.

Identifying the issues

So, the first thing to think about is why you’re organising. You might all be annoyed because your pay is too low. Or it could be about changing shift structures, or getting a particular supervisor to treat their team with respect.

Building relationships with colleagues is important if you want to change something. Listening to your colleagues will help you understand the nuances around the issue, allowing you to build a proper case. And choosing common issues that people feel strongly about will attract others into joining you.

So, ask your colleagues what’s affecting them most. And then:

  • Find the common issues
  • Identify who wants to see change
  • Pool the ideas - people have to solve the issues
  • See if they’re willing to organise behind these solutions

Starting conversations with workmates

Talking to workmates about problems can be stressful. But you can start the conversation informally, asking:

  • Have you heard about...?
  • How do you feel about...?
  • Are you concerned about...?

Try and stick to open questions that explore the problem. You can try to dig deeper by asking further questions like:

  • What makes you say that?
  • Why do you feel that?

Get the balance right. Listen actively. Put down your phone, ignore what’s going in the background, look at the person you’re speaking to. Empathise. Be self-aware and non-judgemental and don't work on assumptions.

You can move on to exploring ideas about what can be done differently. At this point, you can suggest working together with other colleagues to see if you can put some ideas forward to senior members of the team.

Talking outside your team

Once you get a handle on what your workmates care about and have their support, you need to think about how you can widen your reach beyond your team.

To do this, it’s important to build trust within the team. You should be cohesive with a clear aim – making your workplace better for everyone.

Give everyone ways to be active and involved with planned activities. Ask them to find out if there are others who feel the same who might want to get involved. Be realistic and practical. Start with small tasks and, as confidence grows, give more responsibility.

If your workmates are reluctant to get involved, think about why. It can be daunting taking action without management knowing, so you need to reassure people that it’s worth doing and that others are involved.

Don’t give up on them, but don’t bug them either. Try to address their reasons for reluctance, but don’t start to hassle them or use hostile language.

Actually changing something

To achieve change, you need to know how change happens. So think about your organisation’s management and culture:

  • How does change come about in the organisation?
  • Who holds the power?
  • Who might help and listen to you?
  • What can applying pressure look like?
  • What are the obstacles to change?
  • How can you get around these obstacles?

Early steps

Once you’ve got your workmates together and considered how change occurs, you need to think about your next steps. These could include:

  • Writing a formal letter from everyone in the team about the issues that are affecting you
  • Organising a meeting, or bringing your issues up in a staff meeting

Choosing the right moment is essential. So is planning. Create a roadmap for what success looks like on your issue. Think about different ways to influence your target – what can make them change their mind or see things differently.

Don’t just present a list of demands – tell a story. Talk about the problem, how it’s impacting your work, what management could do, and what the benefits of change would be.

Remember you can't organise on your own. You have to do it as part of a team.