The trade-off of remote work for people in marginalized groups
Organizations have been wrestling with what the return to the office looks like. And employees are feeling all kinds of ways about the change—from excited, to mixed, to bummed.
Many people in historically marginalized groups have a specific reason they’re bummed about coming back to in-person work: working from home meant fewer microaggressions.
The compliments that actually insult your group (“You’re so articulate!”)...the invasion of space (“I love your curls; I have to touch them!”)...the presumption of foreignness (“Where are you really from?”)...and unconscious slights that affect your professional success: being constantly interrupted, watching your ideas be credited to others, being left uninvited to meetings and social events.
When you’re not in the same physical space, many of these slights go away. Nobody can confuse you with the other Black employee if your name is written on your video panel. The chronic irritations and small inequities many women endure, from office temperature to uncomfortable shoes, disappear when you’re in your home office, dressed from the waist up. Remote work can be a boon for self-care.
In some ways, the playing field feels more level when it’s a zoom screen. But there’s a trade-off that’s especially relevant for people in groups that have been marginalized. The informal connections that only happen in person often lead to professional opportunities—being invited to contribute to a project, getting advice, launching lasting mentoring relationships. These are crucial elements in advancing a career. If you aren’t seen, you might be forgotten.
So if you have been cherishing your time away from the office, remember it may have a cost. It’s up to us as individuals to take care of our careers. We have to be mindful and intentional about maintaining the relationships that will help us to advance.
But this shouldn’t be solely on employees’ shoulders. Leaders: when a team member says they don’t want to come back to full-time, in-person work, have a conversation with them about why. If the office environment is one of their reasons, don’t penalize them. Be as flexible and supportive as you can.
Ask what would help them feel safe and productive in the office. If they imply that microaggressions are a factor, make it a priority to address this through training and practice. If they say they are more productive at home, explore ways to create a space for them at the office with fewer distractions.
Whatever arrangement you make, take time to consider who might be falling through the cracks. Be intentional about getting all staff the development they need whether they work in-person or virtually. Make sure you find ways to have touchpoints for people who work virtually, especially with mentoring relationships.
And notice the discomfort people express about this transition. When people left the office, the toxic aspects of work that they’d been tolerating for so long became painfully evident.
This was true for everyone. But it was a little more pointed for people who have been historically excluded.