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OPINION: Can we prepare a return to the office without microaggressions?

by Audra Jenkins | Randstad
Tuesday, 12 October 2021 14:36 GMT

Desks sit empty inside an office building as employees continue to work remotely due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Working from home offers a reprieve from discriminatory actions in a physical office setting that threatens the psychological safety of Black employees

By Audra Jenkins, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer of Randstad North America

Lost in the debate over the future of the hybrid workplace lies a major challenge for U.S. employers’ corporate diversity programs: a majority of Black workers in the U.S. don’t want to return to the office according to a study from Future Forum.

In fact, only 3% of Black workers say they want to return to in-person work – compared to 21% of white workers. This is likely because Black workers reported a 64% improvement in their ability to manage stress and their sense of belonging doubled since working from home.

What does this tell us about the future of work? It tells us that, as nine in 10 workplaces opt for a hybrid model, there’s much more work to be done on diversity and inclusion.

While working remotely, employees were able to work from the comfort and safety of their homes – having the option to attend meetings with their cameras off, participate using the chat function, and communicate with coworkers through messages, emails, and calls. This offered a reprieve from discriminatory microaggressions that may have existed in a physical office setting – the “death by a thousand cuts” that threatens the psychological safety of Black employees.

Consequently, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) workers often feel like they need to code-switch and are forced to change how they present themselves in order to be thought of as professional in their workplace.

Leaders can use the time before the hybrid transition to reimagine how to make their workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive – and develop initiatives that would be most effective in the new work environment. They should consider how a hybrid approach could impact their female employees and retention rates. Women struggled before the pandemic balancing work and their caregiving responsibilities but during the crisis millions left the workforce

Leaders should consider establishing a series of virtual trainings – such as unconscious bias training – or workshops, prior to the return to the office to cover appropriate workplace conduct. The majority of companies increased their investment in diversity, equity and inclusion training during 2020 in response to the resurgence of the social justice movement. Now is an optimal moment to update these trainings to be sure they reflect the needs of a virtual and hybrid workforce.

The hybrid workplace will likely make it more difficult for junior and senior level employees to build connections and mentor relationships than traditional office environments. Companies should organize virtual mentorship opportunities, especially for women and people of color – 75% of whom say these programs are crucial to their professional development.

Those who participate in mentorship programs have much higher retention rates – especially among millennials – than those who do not participate. In a time where most have grown tired of virtual social events, mentorship programs can help employees build rapport and grow professionally despite the challenges of a hybrid workplace.

Leaders are in an unprecedented position to develop new diversity and inclusion initiatives that make the workplace inclusive for all employees and improve organizational performance. Despite possible challenges, the hybrid workplace allows for a melding of the best parts of remote and in-person work if organizations are willing to prioritize diversity and inclusion.

The time before companies return to the office should be used to ensure workers are returning to an environment where they feel safe, welcomed, and valued.