For those of us lucky enough to have had a job throughout the pandemic, remote work offers certain freedoms that many of us are loath to give up after a year: freedom from the time, expense and effort of commuting and traveling; freedom from in-person interruptions and distractions (aside from cohabitants and dependents in our homes); and, in some cases, freedom from rigid business hours within which all tasks must be completed and all hands, busy or not, must be on deck.
There’s another freedom that particular subsets of remote workers are experiencing: freedom from dealing with subtle, often unintended expressions of bias known as microaggressions. Individually, these incidents are seldom serious enough to merit HR confrontations. But experiencing them daily is like death by a thousand paper cuts, and processing internal reactions to them drains mental energy and satisfaction.
Future Forum, a consortium formed by workplace communication platform Slack, said its surveys of remote employees suggest that most remote workers would prefer to keep at least some remote work as an option. Future Forum also said it found Black employees have a more pronounced preference for continued remote work than white employees.
According to Tina Gilbert, managing director of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a partner organization of Future Forum, feedback from survey participants indicated that in addition to greater flexibility and balance, Black knowledge workers had a greater sense of belonging when they didn’t feel the constant need to “code-switch” to fit in with a majority-white office environment.
Workers from other demographics have also experienced fewer microaggressions while working remotely. “Doc Mimi,” a Hispanic American government employee and adjunct professor from Bel Air, Maryland, has frequently had to deal in real time with co-workers’ surprise when they learn she has a Hispanic maiden name along with her Ph.D. (“You don’t have that much of an accent!”) She was also often surrounded at the office by audible personal conversations that veered into racially and sexually inappropriate topics. Even whispered conversations “echoed through the walls,” she recalled.
In a Twitter discussion on office microaggressions, people said working at home has largely spared them from having to deal with such incidents as:
• Having colleagues touch their hair;
• Being mistaken for another colleague of the same race (a problem solved by having names displayed in video meetings);
• Overhearing insensitive commentary on or being pressured to discuss traumatizing news events such as racist violence or coronavirus outbreaks in their home country; and
• Fielding comments from passersby on their “angry” (actually focused) expressions.
Working remotely doesn’t prevent all forms of microaggressions, of course. But rather than having to “put a smile on your face and keep moving” in response, says Gilbert, workers at home can more easily connect with their personal support network, which lets them bounce back and regain focus faster. And it’s not just about comfort, it’s also about productivity and efficiency: Allowing people to work in an environment where they don’t feel the need to keep their guard up means “releasing that mental burden from people who are … getting paid to think,” Gilbert explains.
Employers whose remote workers are reluctant to return to the office would do well to seek feedback on the reasons. Are there workplace-specific stressors that workers didn’t consciously identify before, but now dread having to deal with again? Do employees have specific health or safety concerns that remote work can alleviate? For example, Doc Mimi’s health improved at home, away from colleagues wearing asthma-triggering scents. Workers with disabilities may have been spared the stress of navigating building access and transportation challenges.
And given the documented rise in anti-Asian violence over the past year, Asian workers who reasonably fear for their safety while commuting on public transit might feel safer if they continue working from home, or if they’re offered a safer transportation alternative.
Anecdotes aren’t data, but it seems clear that even when the pandemic is no longer as much of a threat, unaddressed microaggressions may keep office spaces from feeling entirely safe or healthy for some workers. Employers that seek out and listen to feedback on ways to make their work environments more inclusive can ensure that when their remote workers are welcomed back into the office, they’ll actually feel welcome.