- Some demographic groups report being more hesitant to return to the office than others.
- Only 3% of Black knowledge workers versus over 20% of white knowledge workers are looking forward to returning to the office full-time.
- For leaders, this could be an opportunity to begin building safer and more equitable workplace cultures.
A surprising number of people are dreading the return to the office and not just because they want to keep working in sweatpants. A 2019 study by the job listing site Monster.com found that as many as 90% of employees have experienced workplace bullying on at least one occasion.
Many employees also report experiencing targeted microaggressions on the job. Black Americans are more likely than any other group to report experiencing microaggressions at work.
Other minority groups are also more likely to face microaggressions and hostility on the job. A 2019 study by the Human Rights Campaign found that most LGBTQ employees occasionally overhear colleagues making jokes about members of their community, and 1 in 5 have been told to change their appearance to appear more normative.
The Pandemic Provided an Overdue Break from Workplace Hostilities
Despite widespread reports of declining mental health, some people reported improved mental health during the pandemic as remote work offered a break from workplace microaggressions. As the pandemic and need for remote work end, this appears to be shaping who is willing to return.
An early 2021 survey by Slack’s Future Forum found that only 3% of Black knowledge workers are excited about returning to the office full-time. In comparison, over 20% of white knowledge workers are eager to return to the office full-time.
Not surprisingly, many members of the transgender community are also reluctant to give up the freedom of remote work. For some, remote work offered a window to transition or come out as transgender at work for the first time.
All of this raises pressing questions for leaders. First, should leaders do everything possible to support workers who prefer to work remotely? Second, how can leaders support employees who feel more comfortable working from home? Finally, given reports that people who work on-site are more likely to be viewed as high potential and receive promotions, how will this situation potentially impact diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the workplace?
Give Employees Options
Choice is always empowering. Unless your workplace requires all employees to be on-site, consider the potential benefits of a permanently remote or flexible hybrid work model. If you need to bring people back on-site, consider making on-site work optional for the first few months to build in an adjustment period.
Investigate Employees’ Return-to-Work Decisions
If you are giving employees options, investigate their choices. Knowing whether an employee is working remotely because they have moved or simply because they never felt comfortable or safe working on-site pre-pandemic is essential.
Address the Problem
If you discover that minority employees aren’t coming back to the office due to a history of workplace bullying or microaggressions, address the problem. Out of sight (remote) isn’t out of mind. If you fail to manage your organization’s culture now, you risk cultivating a more homogenous and toxic workplace in the future.
Define Your Values to Build a Culture of Inclusion
Beyond the challenges of the pandemic, over the past year, Black and Asian Americans have faced heightened, but not new, forms of violence. White Americans, including the nation’s corporate leaders, have been called upon to wake up and reflect on their racial privilege and how it is built into the DNA of their organizations. To build prosperous and equitable organizations, now is the time to clarify what matters and consider how values inform actions, including those that drive decision-making, hiring, and promotions.
Don’t Close the Door
The return to work is going to be complicated—more complicated for some demographics than others. Focus on rebuilding trusting relationships. If a return to the office is optional in your organization, remain attentive to who isn’t physically present.
Above all else, keep checking in with your on-site and remote team members to ensure that every member of your team feels welcome