For Christina, a software engineer, the transition to remote work was supposed to last just two weeks. But as the coronavirus pandemic progressed, it became a change she would like to make permanent ― and her office culture is one main reason.
“I do feel like I have freedom that I didn’t have in the office,” said Christina, who asked not to be fully named because she feared reprisal at work. While working remotely, she learned she had become one of the only Black people in her department, and said she’s glad she does not have to experience that reality in person.
“Most of my interactions with my co-workers are very focused on the work that we’re doing, and for me, I appreciate that,” said Christina. “Sometimes hearing your co-worker’s opinions on current events are not really the most inclusive opinion. It’s nice that I don’t have to delve into that with them.“
Christina’s experience aligns with a report released Tuesday that suggests Black employees value remote work the most, and it may be because they face so many draining microaggressions in their office environments.
The Future Forum, a research consortium organized by Slack, surveyed 5,085 U.S. office workers and professionals who “work with data, analyze information or think creatively” from April to May, asking about their work lives during this stage of the pandemic.
Although a majority of people surveyed said that they want to work at least part of the time away from the office, Black employees were the group most likely to want a flexible working experience, either through a remote-only or hybrid model that would have them in-office only part of the time. In the survey, 68% of Black workers wanted flexible work policies, compared to 56% of white workers.
But why are more Black professionals rejecting an office-centric workplace? The study suggests that it might be because they feel more welcome when they work away from the office. Future Forum found that Asian, Black and Latinx employees hold a higher sense of belonging when working remotely compared to working in-office and relative to their white counterparts.
“People of color, in many situations, are so used to having to adapt and adjust and think about what are we going to let go and how do we choose our battles. And I just realized, in this space, I don’t have to live my life in that way.”
For Black professionals in particular, location flexibility can be a game-changer. People in the survey who had recent remote or hybrid work experience were asked to rate various elements of their work life on a five-point scale from “very poor” to “very good.” Black professionals gave the highest scores for feeling a sense of belonging when they had location flexibility, with Latinx and Asian professionals coming in second and third, respectively.
But for white professionals, location flexibility did not improve a sense of belonging — it actually decreased this feeling.
Black professionals value working remotely the most. Draining in-person microaggressions could be a reason.
Returning to the office full-time is not a popular idea, but it’s most appealing to white employees. While 26% of white employees surveyed wanted to return to the office five days a week, only 20% of Black employees, 22% of Latinx employees and 23% of Asian employees said the same.
What this suggests is that the office can be great for some, but it is clearly not working for many. Tina Gilbert, managing director of Future Forum partner Management Leadership for Tomorrow, said during a press event for the survey that when you are the only one representing your culture in an office, it takes up brain space that could be better used elsewhere. Working away from the office can help.
“The burden or the heaviness not only is reduced, but the productivity goes up and it allows knowledge workers to use more of that share of mind to be innovative and to bring new ideas,” she said.
The fact is, the office can be an exhausting and draining place where everyday microaggressions can occur at any moment. Before the pandemic, Christina recalled overhearing a co-worker talk about how he doesn’t agree with Black Lives Matter and thinks it’s a horrible organization. Christina said she felt relieved that she did not have to process last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests with her colleagues in person.
“We had Zoom meetings,” she said. “But knowing that I could consent to these conversations and they weren’t just happening and I felt like I needed to be involved made a lot of the discussions around race bearable for the past year.“
Adjoa Osei, a licensed clinical psychologist and diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, said the office can trigger what sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois called Black “double-consciousness,” or “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” as Du Bois described it.
Osei said she has experienced this tension herself as a Black woman in workplaces where she felt very visible because of her appearance and also invisible because her contributions were not being recognized.
“Being home allows us to have space to be without having that white gaze constantly on us,” she said.
“Ideally, I would like to work in an office where I’m not reminded that I’m the only one... Working from home is the next best thing.”
Osei said that she made the decision to go into private practice after realizing it gave her more control over how she worked. “It was just wanting to have a greater sense of control, and I think people of color, in many situations, are so used to having to adapt and adjust and think about what are we going to let go, and how do we choose our battles. And I just realized, in this space, I don’t have to live my life in that way.”
Of course, flexibility to work when and how you want can help drive inclusion, but it cannot fix a racially hostile work environment, virtual or not. While Black employees in the survey said they felt a stronger sense of belonging when working remotely, white employees still reported 25% higher scores overall on questions about job satisfaction, a sense of belonging and resource access.
Christina shared an example of this limitation. Her team members don’t always have their cameras on in video meetings, but on a day they did, she received comments about her hairstyle within minutes.
“One teammate took a screenshot of my Zoom picture and posted it in one of our Slack channels, not necessarily complimenting it, just saying ‘Oh my gosh, new hairdo, we don’t even recognize her,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is one of those things I don’t like about the office. This is very annoying.’ So yeah, I’m definitely not excited [to go back].”
Christina said she is sad knowing that she has to go back to her office in August. Although she has had positive experiences in offices that were more inclusive, she said working from home would be her best option for this job.
“Ideally, I would like to work in an office where I’m not reminded that I’m the only one. I would like to go to an office and it’s a nice, diverse environment,” she said. “I just think that at this point, it’s just wishful thinking and so far out in the future that working from home is the next best thing.”