How Underrepresented Groups Feel About Returning to the Office After the COVID-19 Pandemic
Microaggressions, social and political unrest, vaccination policies, and commuting all factor into why underrepresented groups are less than excited about returning to the office.
While we are still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic as the Delta variant surges throughout the world, many companies have made the switch from work from home to working back in the office as vaccination rates rise. And despite the return to “normal” office life for many organizations, a great number of employees, especially underrepresented ones, are not enjoying the return to in-person office hours or are dreading the return to office life. Things like office anxiety, polarizing political views, and the social and racial unrest of 2020 are all contributing reasons for the lack of enthusiasm about going back into the office.
According to data from the Future Forum Pulse, a global study of more than 10,000 knowledge workers across the world, 44% of executives who were surveyed said they want to work from the office every day, compared to only 17% of employees. And while 75% of executives want to work in the office three to five days a week, only 34% of employees feel the same. The data also shows that more than half of the respondents report they’re open to looking for a new job in the next year, and for those not satisfied with the level of flexibility in their current role, the number jumps up to 71% who are looking for a new job. All of this shows that the trek back into office life is looking less than exciting for most employees.
The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd also greatly contributed to the reasons why underrepresented people felt uncomfortable returning to the office. “It opened everyone’s eyes to just how significant a problem we continue to face with diversity, equity, and justice in society and workplace racism,” says Charlene Wheeless, an author and the senior advisor for equity and justice at APCO Worldwide. Morgan Bailee Boggess, a biracial writer and transracial adoptee who recently left office life to work from home, agrees with this sentiment. “I was still trying to come to terms with the major cultural shift that had happened over the past 18 months, much less figure out what I wanted to bring to the office potluck.” These events gave companies the opportunity to re-evaluate or implement DE&I practices and shined a light into the companies who are actually working to tear down biased systems and build new ones that guarantee justice for everyone, Wheeless notes. It’s a welcome opportunity for growth and change for companies taking it seriously, and a wake-up call for those who aren’t. “For those of us who believed in these organizations promising change without delivering, it’s simply another added trauma,” says Boggess. “It’s one thing to behave as though you weren’t aware of the problem,” echoes Wheeless, “but it’s an entirely different situation to not care.”
Workplace microaggressions are another huge reason that underrepresented groups are struggling with returning to the office. Clarissa Silva, a Latina behavioral scientist, entrepreneur, and founder of consulting firm C Silva Solutions, has been working with several companies for the past 2 years on COVID-19 transition plans that help employees manage work life, address COVID-19 fears, anxiety, pandemic fatigue, and improve their overall wellbeing. Her research shows that BIPOC women especially are concerned with returning to the office, due to the microaggressions that take place there, in person. “Reactions to hair, appearance, last name, clothing, food, or being mistaken for another employee of the same race/ethnicity are all processed and questioned in the office and in person,” she says. She states while these microaggressions are a source of stress and anxiety, they can also temporarily reduce productivity. “Processing trauma for anyone takes time away from their scheduled projects. It isn’t something that’s factored into an employee’s wellbeing, and it often lacks the appropriate support system to address these disparities in the workplace.” Boggess, who now works from home, agrees. “Without the pressure of constant supervision and monitoring from bosses and coworkers, people can feel freer to share ideas and contribute in ways that are genuine,” she states. “It’s much easier to be your authentic self when you’re in the comfort of your own home and can dress in ways that represent yourself better, eat foods that you prefer that won’t bother your coworkers, and operate on your own schedule.”
Tedious commutes are another reason that underrepresented employees are not looking forward to returning to the office. Silva’s analysis shows that having freed-up time spent away from commuting made underrepresented employees realize that it was a source of stress. And in addition to the stress of commuting, BIPOC women expressed concerns about their physical safety when leaving work at later hours.
Childcare was another top concern for BIPOC women pre-pandemic that became compounded during the height of the pandemic, according to Silva. “Employees who are parents were forced to deal with childcare, work productivity, and managing homelife, and didn’t realize the burden of it all until it converged onto itself,” she says.
The lack of vaccination policies in some workplaces are also a concern for BIPOC employees returning to work. Silva’s research shows that underrepresented people from the sandwich generation (middle-aged adults who are still raising their own children while caring for their aging parents at the same time) expressed the most concern about vaccination apprehension/hesitancy and policies for employees, since they fear heading back into the office where some might not be vaccinated and potentially infecting their parents and/or children under the age of 5.
In all, there are numerous reasons why underrepresented groups are less than thrilled about returning to the office. But company leaders can do something about this by working to introduce change in procedures and policies, and striving for more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces. “This is a time for leaders to lead with empathy, compassion, and humanity,” says Wheeless. “Anything short of this will be a failure.” By demonstrating empathy through company return-to-work policies, leaders can show their teams that they’re working hard to create an inclusive space for everyone. Allowing flexible work schedules will show employees that you’re listening to their concerns about workplace microaggressions, commuting, and childcare, and can motivate them to return to the office, even if it’s a hybrid approach. Incentivizing employees who get vaccinated is another way to show empathy for those concerned with workplace vaccination rates. One way to do this is to provide your employees with paid time off so they can go get vaccinated. Clear communications are also key for showing empathy as well. Provide employees with literature on how the office will operate once employees return to work and be transparent about policies and procedures. By doing these types of things, you’re showing your employees that you care about their return to the office and their wellbeing as everyone adjusts to a new type of workplace.