Over the past year, due to Covid, many corporate companies have adopted hybrid/remote working models. Despite some of the challenges of working remotely, a survey by Future Forum found that only 3% of Black knowledge workers want to return to the office full time, compared to 21% of their white colleagues. Black knowledge workers also reported a 50% boost in their sense of belonging at work and a 64% increase in their ability to manage stress once they started working from home. This is not surprising given that generally, office culture has been unwelcoming of Black employees and constantly reinforces our ‘outsider’ status.
A report from Savanta’s Diversity and Inclusion team revealed that almost half of Black employees have left a job due to the lack of diversity and according to a report by Henley Business School, Black employees are twice as likely to face racism in their work environments compared to other ethnic groups. Working remotely has provided us with a much-needed break from the daily in-person microaggressions and gaslighting that take a mental toll and negatively impact our well-being.
For the first time in ages, we have the freedom to just be; without constantly being reminded directly or indirectly that we don’t belong and also without needing to alter ourselves or to fit in with our predominantly non-Black colleagues. However despite the perceived benefits of working remotely, many of the challenges Black employees faced whilst working in the office have unfortunately evolved and transitioned into the virtual world.
Microaggressions (defined by psychologist Derald W. Sue as “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people") have transitioned from the office into our homes. Now that our work colleagues have a window into our personal lives from seeing us dressed less formally, to catching a glimpse of family members in the background of our video calls, to seeing some our home furnishings, not only do they have new ‘material’ for their microaggressions, but they are now able to direct them towards us virtually - whether it’s during an online meeting or on a direct messaging platform such as Slack.
It can range from comments about our more relaxed home attire, to derogatory observations about a part of our home which is in camera view, or those team ice breaker games that exclude us, such as ‘guess the baby picture’ when you’re the only Black person in the team. Even though these ‘slights’ happen virtually and not in person, they still hurt, and, in some ways, it can feel worse because it’s happening within our home, which is meant to be our safe space, our sanctuary.
With the lines blurring between our home lives and professional lives, the need for us to code-switch - adapting the way we speak, behave and aspects our appearance to distance ourselves from harmful racialised stereotypes and to appear more professional - has only evolved in the remote working world.
The removal of physical boundaries between our home and work life means it’s no longer easy for us to tuck away certain elements of our blackness anymore and with our work colleagues having a front row seat in our personal living spaces, we’re having to be extra careful about the aspects of our lives we decide to display and how we choose to show up in order to prevent further marginalisation.
Code-switching when working from home may look like changing cultural aesthetics in your working space that might be in camera view, opting to not turn on your camera during meetings, or for some Black women it could be quickly putting on your wigs for meetings to avoid comments about your natural hair.
Code-switching at home and in the office is exhausting and research has found that it can lead to increased burnout, however research also shows that when we conform to white workplace ideals and downplay our Black identities, we are more likely to be viewed as professional. Why? Because, as explained in a Harvard Business Review article, “professionalism” is coded — by white middle/upper social class standards, the segmentation of work and non-work, European appearance standards, and the expectation that people bring only their “work selves” to work”.
The ability to code-switch has always been a survival mechanism for us in our personal and professional lives as we navigate institutions where we are often a minority and there are widely held colonial stereotypes of what Black people are like. Whilst it has almost become something many of us do subconsciously, in this remote working world, it feels like a much more intentional act.
Lack of visibility and career progression
For Black employees, a massive part of our ability to progress in the workplace rests on our visibility and our ability to network and build relationships which was hard enough when we were in the office and is even more difficult working from home. The majority of senior leadership in most organisations are white men who generally advocate and sponsor other white male proteges, who they see as their ‘mini me’.
In a study by Coqual, 71% of those surveyed (who were white men) admitted that they chose to sponsor someone from their own race or gender. Known as the similar to me bias, white male leaders gravitate to what they know and who they feel more comfortable around, unfortunately at the expense of Black employees. We see the adverse impact of this on Black women who are less likely to have a sponsor in the workplace, less likely to be promoted and are more likely to feel that promotions are not fair and objective compared to their colleagues.
Although we can facilitate catch ups and networking virtually, in-person meetings and being present (when in the same location) is critical to building true connections with those that have the power and influence to elevate our career. From starting a chat with someone over a coffee in the kitchen area, to going up to a leader’s desk to share some insights from something you’re working on: those small, often ‘dry’ interactions create familiarity, and without it Black employees will continue to struggle with upward progression at work.
The heightened Intersection of race and class inequality
Although the language around working remotely leans towards the ‘comfort’ and ‘convenience’ of working from home, this isn’t a shared universal experience and highlights a class privilege that many Black employees are not afforded. According to research commissioned by People Like Us, Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to be using their bedroom as a home office, without a proper desk. The research also revealed that most professionals of ethnic backgrounds are working in a home that they share with two or more people. Whilst many companies are subsidising equipment for employees to work from home, some companies have not committed to this. And when employees are not able to afford their own equipment, this could result in an increased class gap in work-from-home experiences.
For Black employees, this can cause increased stress and anxiety during the working day and impact our ability to do our jobs to a high standard. Consequently, nearly 50% of racially diverse employees believe they have missed out on a promotion working from home and are similarly concerned that working from home has made them fall behind with work.
Although working from home has a multitude of benefits, there is still a long way to go before it can be labelled as a more inclusive alternative to the office. The reality is that Black employees are having to learn new ways to navigate old issues which have crept into the remote working world. If remote and hybrid working is going to be the future, organisations need to make sure that everyone has access to the benefits of working from home and rethink what inclusion looks like when we’re not in the office.
Written by Rene Germain