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How the pandemic changed the way Black workers go to work

Remote work lifts the weight of invisible and emotional labor so the real work can get done

The pandemic might have been the spark that ignited the so-called Great Resignation, but widespread racial and gender inequity at work served as the perfect kindling.The Emancipator/Nadia Snopek/Adobe

The pandemic might have been the spark that ignited the so-called Great Resignation, but widespread racial and gender inequity at work served as the perfect kindling.

The traditional American workplace was constructed by and for White male workers who have dominated cubicle culture for generations. Black and Brown workers continue to earn far less and fail to reach senior leadership positions as often. As millions of workers were forced out of their cubicles and into makeshift home offices, underrepresented workers finally got a taste of what a different work-life balance could look like.

Not surprisingly, few of us are lining up to go back.

The vast majority — more than 80% — of non-White workers prefer a hybrid or fully remote work arrangement, compared with 75% of White workers, according to a report by Future Forum, the independent research arm of Slack. Furthermore, underrepresented workers tend to report higher instances of job satisfaction when they’re given the flexibility to choose whether to work in the office or not.

Apart from the obvious benefits of the virtual office, like less time spent commuting, employees also got a break from the emotional labor that comes with working while Black or Brown. For those of us gutted by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and disturbing attacks on Asian Americans, not having to make small talk at the water cooler and pretend as if we weren’t internally reeling was a massive relief. Personally, I took an hour that might have been spent commuting and instead attended a Black Lives Matter rally at a nearby park without worrying about what my colleagues might have thought.

On the most basic of all levels, working remotely also offered relief from the invisible labor of getting ready to show up to work as a Black woman. On days when my newborn son slept terribly and I couldn’t muster the willpower to primp, I could choose to skip the 30- to 45-minute routine of taming my unruly natural hair into submission and putting on a faceful of makeup. As an added bonus, I knew there was a much lower chance I’d be mistaken, again, for one of the other Brown-skinned, curly haired women on my team because Zoom offered us virtual nametags.

“Working flexibly every day means you don’t have to code-switch, where you have to change your behavior, your appearance, the foods you eat, the way you wear your hair to fit into the norm,” says Sheela Subramanian, co-founder of Future Forum and co-author of the forthcoming book, “How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives.” She continued, “working flexibly enables employees of color to bring more of their whole self to work.”

No group suffered more from the pandemic’s economic impact than Black working women. Black women were more likely to work in industries like retail and restaurants, which had massive layoffs and furloughs. They were also overrepresented in industries where working from home simply wasn’t an option, like health care.

On a whim, I offered a free half hour of career coaching to my Instagram followers during the summer of 2021. More than 200 women, mostly Black, signed up in the first 48 hours, and I spent the next seven months listening to countless stories from women exhausted and fed up with being expected to work hard and smile with little support and low pay.

One of those women was Marceia Cork, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and mother of two school-aged children. Cork lost a major client contract soon after the economy shut down but couldn’t fathom re-entering the job market with two children in virtual school who needed support at home. It wasn’t until more remote opportunities became common and less stigmatized that she considered returning to the job market at all.

“The pandemic and the remote opportunities that emerged as a byproduct are the sole reason I can even consider a return to the workforce,” says Cork, 45, who lives in Odenton, Maryland. “Before the pandemic, I was convinced that the majority of my work could be conducted remotely and that was likely the case for a lot of working mothers. But employers weren’t convinced. The pandemic showed employers we can be productive while having the balance we need.”

Doubts that hybrid or fully remote workers are productive continue to dwindle. In a survey of 800 employers, a whopping 94% said “productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely.”

If companies are truly committed to hiring and retaining a diverse workforce, relaxing policies against remote work is just one step in the right direction.

Leaders with hybrid teams have to also be intentional in how they measure employee performance. Subramanian warns of so-called “proximity bias,” where workers who choose to be in the office might receive more promotions or praise come performance review time simply because they were more physically visible in the office than remote workers.

Ensuring that a shift toward remote work doesn’t result in even fewer opportunities for advancement for workers of color starts with retraining managers in how to evaluate employee performance and encouraging senior leaders to set an example for valuing remote employees just as much as those in-office.

Prior to and during the pandemic, I managed a team of 30 employees who were both remote and in-office. I intentionally scheduled weekly one-on-one meetings with each person on my team and made an effort to fly remote workers out to the office at least once per year so they could connect with their peers.

I personally traveled often to visit staff and give them a chance for face time with me. Even small gestures helped to make everyone feel valued. When we couldn’t afford to get the whole team together for our holiday party, we arranged care packages for workers who missed out. And I made certain each person’s productivity and quality of work were the deciding factors in awarding bonuses, promotions, and raises.

We’ve seen many companies issue declarations of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and inclusive hiring practices since 2020. But press releases and donations alone aren’t going to be enough to entice job seekers who are looking for much, much more.

Mandi Woodruff-Santos is a career coach, finance expert, and host of the “Brown Ambition” podcast, who writes frequently about wealth-building.