From the New York Times:
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.
By Ruchika Tulshyan
June 23, 2021
“I actually like not having to go into the office and be constantly reminded that I’m the only Black woman there.”
— 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.”
The Census Bureau used to lump Asians and Pacific Islanders together, but around 2000 the Pacific Islander organizations complained, not unreasonable, that they don’t have much to do with Asians. So the feds broke Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander out as a separate race, which seemed to work out okay with few complaints. But now in 2021, we’re suddenly hearing all the time once again about “A.A.P.I.” What happened?
And are Samoan women really as concerned as Chinese women about being attacked on the street by schizo black homeless maniacs?
… 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.” …
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.