By CDC numbers, almost two-thirds of adults in the U.S. have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and businesses are making plans to reopen offices. Many of their employees would prefer to keep working from home, for a variety of reasons, and Black workers have particular concerns when it comes to heading back to the office.
Business consultant Vanessa Zamy was living in Northern California when pandemic lockdowns began. After a while working from home, she noticed something: “For me, part of the beauty of not having to commute to work and really be around society that much was this benefit of having to deal with less microaggressions,” Zamy said.
That includes things like people locking their car doors when she walked by and security guards following her. She started hearing similar stories from friends, that working remotely made it a bit easier to be Black, not just while commuting, but also while working.
“Less of, you know, somebody random touching your hair,” Zamy said. “When you have that co-worker who says something questionable at the meeting, you can turn off your video on the Zoom, right? You can mute yourself and inhale and exhale.”
These conversations are happening privately in all sorts of industries. “Particularly if you have a culture in the organization that’s not very inclusive, it does give people a break,” said Audrey Murrell, a professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Murrell cautioned that working from home may not be easier for all Black workers, especially those with caregiving responsibilities or lack of private space. The same distance that protects Black workers at home from microaggressions can also cut them off from their peers, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You can work from home, and you can be away from a lot of the interpersonal challenges that can make it harder for Black workers,” Harvey Wingfield said. “But I worry that working from home will also take Black workers out of the networks and connections that they need to advance in the modern workplace.”
Add to all this the hard discussions about race that happened virtually in workplaces after the murder of George Floyd.
“People are scared to go back to work,” said Lynn Perry Wooten, president of Simmons University, who specializes in organizational management. “They’re like, ‘Oh, are things going to return to normal?'”
Wooten has heard from Black workers who are worried all of their companies’ promises to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion won’t really happen. She said businesses planning to bring workers back to the office “need to keep in mind, why do my employees not to want to come back? And what can I do to ensure that my culture is welcoming and inclusive?”
Wooten said with so many employees feeling safe at home, companies need to take additional steps to ensure everyone feels safe at work, too.