Jun 18, 2020

Can working from home help employees speak out against racism?

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It may be easier for some to have tough conversations from the comfort of their own home, but it can be isolating for others.

There’s a national conversation going on about race and inequality, and that includes at work. Some changes, like the leadership overhaul at Bon Appétit magazine, came only after prominent employees spoke out publicly on social media. 

A lot of companies are holding internal listening sessions to start to address systemic racism. With so many people working remotely, those tough conversations are necessarily happening via videoconference. Researchers are watching carefully to learn what impact that’s having on worker activism. Is it easier to speak out when you’re apart from your colleagues and don’t have to do it face-to-face? Or is it more difficult to be heard?  

I spoke with Kira Banks, a professor of psychology at Saint Louis University in Missouri, where she runs the Race and Intergroup Dynamics Lab. As part of her work, she’s spoken to around 100 Black employees in the last few weeks about their experiences. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Kira Banks (Photo courtesy of Banks)

Kira Banks: For Black and indigenous people of color who are being asked to share their experiences, it can be really overwhelming. So having that space might be protective, in that it’s not as intimate as it might be if we were literally in the same space. In that sense, for some people, it might feel safer to do it in this medium that’s a little bit more removed.

Jack Stewart: I guess you can just turn off your computer at the end of a tough conversation and you’re by your couch, you’re at home, compared to, I suppose, going back to your desk?

Banks: Yes. Going back to your desk, maybe bumping into that person later, the awkwardness of, are they going to say something? Do I need to say something? So I agree. That’s what I’ve heard [from] people feeling like, I mustered up the courage to share this. I wasn’t sure how it would be taken. But when I turned off my video or turned off the meeting, I was in the comfort of my own home and that felt better, [compared to] being in the office, where you’re unsure how people are going to take it. And of course, you’re unsure how they’re going to take it virtually, but you don’t have to be around them and bump up against them and bump into them throughout the day.

Stewart: Is there any other technology specifically that could help? I mean, we’ve just defaulted to using video calling through our laptops, but are there other things that could make these types of conversations easier?

Banks: I think specifically, when we talk about race and racism, I think this expectation that we have our video on is unreasonable across the board as a rule. I think it’s worth giving people that flexibility to share as they see fit. I was running a group, and one of the participants couldn’t speak, did not have their video on, but shared a post in the chat. I saw that it came up. I saw that their video wasn’t on, and I said, “I see that you shared something. Would you like us to read it?” They decided at that moment to put their video on and tearfully said, “Yeah, I can’t get it out. I can’t say it. But I’d like for you all to read this.” Then, as a group, most people on video, we all clicked on the link, read it. Then some people gave reactions. To allow people the multitude of ways and avenues that we have to communicate, rather than forcing it to be voice, verbal communication, I think is respectful of diversity of expression.

Stewart: I know it’s early days for the science and the research here into these different forms of communications, but as a researcher, are there any questions or research areas you think would be good to start trying to figure out the real differences between being able to speak up in person and doing that remotely?

Banks: I’d be interested in what we would call the underlying mechanisms — what makes a person more comfortable speaking out over a virtual medium versus in person, like are there personality variables? I know for some people, they have expressed feeling hesitant to share over the virtual medium because it feels isolating. They feel like, I’m going to say something, and there are just going to be crickets, and that’s going to be way too awkward for me to handle. And then there’s others that feel like, I’m going to take this opportunity to share my truth, regardless of if there are crickets and awkward silences. I would be interested as a psychologist, what are the variables about people and their personalities, and their tendencies in other areas of life and other domains, that would make them the type of person that would feel more freedom through this medium versus more inhibited?

Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

My colleague Kimberly Adams recently looked at the issue of language in the tech world and the recent movement in the industry toward replacing insensitive terms. Think “master” and “slave” for main and secondary servers. Or terms like “whitelist” and “blacklist.” Kimberly looks at what it will take to actually make change happen.

We have a lot of other coverage about this enforced transition for many people to remote working and the challenges it’s thrown up. We checked in with a couple of workers about how they’re adjusting to having their kids around all day and how they’re making sure they get a lunch break. That’s worth a listen just to compare experiences.

There’s also the question of what happens to people hoping to start internships right now, since they’re moving online too. It turns out there are advantages to being a virtual intern, including no photocopying or collecting the coffees. And this transition isn’t just an issue for employees, but for managers, too. Some of them told us they deal with self-doubt over whether they can effectively lead a team they can’t be with.

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