Return to Office? Some Women of Color Aren’t Ready

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in her words

After more than a year of virtual work, employers are making plans to get back to the physical workplace. That has many workers worrying about the return of microaggressions and bias, too.

Credit...Amrita Marino

June 23, 2021

— Courtney McCluney, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s ILR School

Employers are making plans for employees to return to the office after more than a year of virtual work, but many women of color aren’t eager to rush back.

“I’m nervous about going back,” said Courtney McCluney, who started a new job as an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s ILR School last June, and hasn’t yet met many of her colleagues in person. For Dr. McCluney, a Black woman who has faced countless microaggressions throughout her professional career, the virtual environment provided a respite.

“This was the first year that I haven’t had my hair commented on and touched without permission in my professional life,” she said. “I actually like not having to go into the office and be constantly reminded that I’m the only Black woman there.”

Research backs this sentiment. In a survey by the Slack think tank Future Forum a whopping 97 percent of Black respondents in the U.S. said they preferred a fully remote or hybrid workplace. Only 3 percent of Black workers surveyed said they wanted to return fully in person, compared with 21 percent of white workers. In another study from the same group, Black workers reported a 50 percent increase in their sense of workplace belonging and a 64 percent increase in their ability to manage stress once they began working from home. The study concluded that flexible work was critical to a feeling of greater inclusion for Black workers.

To be sure, remote work brought many challenges for women of color. But a return to in-person work will also mean a return to microaggressions, pressure to conform to white standards of professionalism, and high rates of workplace stress and burnout.

As a whole, women of color tend to have a more negative experience in the workplace than white women, said Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “They’ve historically worked in environments that have not been physically safe for them, much less psychologically or emotionally safe.” Many women of color feel disconnected or disengaged at work, overlooked for projects and not fully connected to co-workers and colleagues. There’s a feeling that white co-workers don’t really “understand, respect or appreciate our cultural context or our journey,” she said.

Many of the microaggressions women of color face happen in person: “Things like having your hair touched or people commenting on your body, or asking ‘Oh what are you eating? It smells weird,’” Dr. McCluney said. “This is why we don’t all want to go back into the office.”

There’s also physical safety to consider, according to Julie Pham, founder of CuriosityBased, a consulting practice that facilitates workshops to build collaboration and inclusion.

“I’ve heard A.A.P.I. women express concerns about their physical safety while walking outside,” Dr. Pham said, referring to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, “and more leaders must consider this as in-person work requires commuting.”

Company leaders should familiarize themselves with the particular challenges women of color face before developing return-to-office policies, Dr. McCluney and Dr. Roberts said. Or at the very least, they should be prepared to address them as employees return.

For their part, millions of businesses are grappling with what “back to work” should look like. Current models run the gamut from fully in person to hybrid to fully remote. This month Amazon announced that it expected office workers to return to the office at least three days a week starting after Labor Day. Apple made a similar announcement but faced immediate pushback from employees. Ford and Twitter, by contrast, announced plans to let their workers remain remote indefinitely.

Not surprisingly, it’s become a contentious issue. Many executives — including leaders at Netflix, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan — say company cultures thrive when people are together in offices. But a lot of workers feel differently: About 63 percent of 20,750 respondents said they valued working from home two or three days a week as much as a raise, José Maria Barrero, co-author of the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, said in an email.

The virtual environment is more equalizing in many ways, said Dr. Pham, who identifies as a Vietnamese-born American. Some years ago she faced criticism after she hung decorative paper lanterns above her desk. “I heard secondhand that those lanterns upset some co-workers because they felt they were unprofessional,” she said.

Now she displays them proudly in her home office, where anyone in a virtual meeting with her can see. Also, “I’m a short person at 5 feet, which means in physical spaces, I have to work extra hard at literally being seen,” she said.

She added: “I am more confident in virtual spaces because we are all the same height. I spend almost no time worrying about what to wear or makeup, and I usually don’t use a virtual background when on video conference. I feel more authentic presenting my real background to others.”

Dr. McCluney said research and anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly suggest that women of color prefer to remain remote, or at least want to be given a choice on whether to return to the office.

Many women of color are concerned about having to code switch again, which is “when employees of color, particularly Black employees, feel pressure to adjust their style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that make others — especially white peers in the workplace — comfortable,” she noted.

Tisha Held, a Seattle-based tax auditor, said that, for many years, being the only Black woman at her organization meant pretending she was all right in front of co-workers when hearing distressing news about a police shooting of a Black person or other racist incidents.

Virtual work, she said, alleviates and prevents those “superficial interactions when you come into work and everyone says, ‘Good morning,’ while you’re processing this anger and fear.” Remote work allowed her to not have to “go to work while processing low-level trauma all the time.”

To be more inclusive to women of color, leaders should survey employees about their concerns, as well as what they need and want, Dr. Pham said.

Pay special attention to what women are asking for, she added, especially those in multigenerational households, like many A.A.P.I. women. They may have some of the biggest challenges related to caregiving and returning to an environment where workers may be unvaccinated.

Juliette Austin, a diversity and inclusion leader for a New York-based technology company, notes that a flexible or hybrid approach in the early stages of re-entry could help ease stress. She also recommends scheduling weekly “physical, emotional, and intellectual” check-ins with team members.

“So many of us are burned out or generally overwhelmed,” she continued. “Demonstrating compassion can go a long way in helping team members feel secure, understood and supported. Creating space and grace to just be human is an act of compassion.”

Employers should remember that the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect Black and brown women, many of whom have ties to countries grappling with “second or third waves” of the pandemic, said Aliya Hamid Rao, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics.

Adjustments tailored to employees’ needs can make them feel welcomed and included.

Sometimes just feeling heard can make all the difference.

Jennifer Jimenez, a Los Angeles-based publicist who identifies as Latinx, said it made all the difference when her employer pushed back its return-to-office date in response to employee concerns. Now that she’s vaccinated, she said, she has “become more comfortable and excited at the prospect of going back into the office.”

As for Ms. Held, she plans to head back despite “some trepidation” because she believes visibility and presence are important, as is “reminding people I am here, whether you see me or not.”

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