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For some workers thriving remotely, returning to the office can reignite old inequities

Peter Cronis has been granted permission to work remotely from home permanently. He is a senior PCA skills trainer.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Peter Cronis was born with severe scoliosis and a disorder that twists his body into what he describes as a pretzel: “No part is where it should be.”

For most of his 35 years working at the Boston Center for Independent Living, Cronis, who uses a wheelchair, commuted from Newton to Downtown Crossing on The Ride, the MBTA’s van service for people with disabilities. Until he started working remotely full time during the pandemic, his long, circuitous commute was “a pain in the neck,” Cronis said — hard on his body as well as his punctuality.

Cronis, 66, who oversees assessments of people seeking personal care attendants, recently found that he could continue working from home permanently. He had been contemplating retirement but now plans to delay it. He can also sleep past 5 a.m., prolonging the use of a BiPap machine that helps him breathe and gives him more energy throughout the day.

“It’s a huge relief,” Cronis said. “It took me away from a tortuous and arduous journey.”

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For a number of employees who have embraced working remotely during the pandemic, the reluctance to go back to the office goes far beyond the hassle of battling traffic or giving up newfound autonomy. Being at home means not having to hear insensitive comments about the smell of ethnic food in the microwave or the intricacies of a new hairstyle. Not having to navigate public transportation in a wheelchair. Not struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy when anxiety sets in.

For those who feel overwhelmed, judged, or excluded in the workplace — and have the ability to work from anywhere — the massive work-from-home experiment over the last 2½ years has been a revelation. Realizing that they are less stressed and more productive on their own, and that employers know their output hasn’t suffered, some workers are pushing to stay remote permanently.

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The increased availability of remote work could allow more people to join the workforce, including those with disabilities, who are disproportionately unemployed. Yet there is an inherent danger in certain demographics opting to work offsite, advocates say, noting that it could put a damper on the career growth of specific groups of people and create more segregated workplaces.

Workplace consultant Su Joun is well aware of the “mask” many people wear at work. Whether people are struggling with mental health issues, toxic co-workers, paying for professional attire, or the subtle, often unintentional discrimination known as microaggressions, “the thought of going back to the office is very daunting,” said Joun, principal at Diversity@Workplace Consulting Group in Cambridge.

But Joun worries about those who struggle at work but don’t have the option to do their jobs at home — and the even greater inequities this could create between white- and blue-collar employees. Joun is also concerned that people who never go into the office will be “out of sight, out of mind.”

Surveys have found that more Black workers than white workers prefer to work remotely and that Black and Latino employees’ sense of belonging increased significantly more than white employees’ did when they worked from home. At the same time, though, research shows that nearly 70 percent of supervisors believe remote workers are more easily replaceable than onsite ones.

“Who you see is who you end up promoting,” Joun said.

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Adrena Nunnally, 40, has endured her fair share of microaggressions during her career in the insurance industry. Nunnally, who is Black, changes her hairstyle frequently. It might be short one day and in long braids the next, and her colleagues were constantly asking how long the process took, if it hurt, if she could wash it. One co-worker even snapped a picture of a colleague touching her hair. The reactions aren’t malicious, she said, but she had to mentally prepare for them every time.

Nunnally worked from home for a Boston company during the pandemic, but when discussions about returning to the office began, she got a remote job as a vice president with an Ohio-based organization. Having more control over her environment is better for her mental well-being, Nunnally said, noting that her virtual conversations with co-workers tend to be more focused on work. She started wearing braids a few weeks ago, and no one commented on the change. She even put a photo of herself with an Afro on her LinkedIn profile — a hairstyle she rarely dared to wear before.

“Everyone is not walking into the office with the same level of freedom,” she said. “There’s pressure to represent people that look like you, so that you almost feel like, if I mess this up they won’t hire another one. . . . It’s a burden that many of us carry day to day.”

Nunnally’s former co-worker Tammy Hernandez, whose parents are from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, also opted to take a remote job based on how much better she felt working from home during the pandemic. Along with no longer having to wrap a blanket around herself in a cold office, she doesn’t have to deal with co-workers asking “what is that weird smell?” when she heats up leftovers for lunch. She also doesn’t have to hear co-workers complaining about clients who spoke English as a second language. And she no longer feels she has to adjust how she speaks or act as a cultural translator.

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Hernandez, 28, a self-described introvert who finds dealing with people exhausting in general, said she sometimes left the office crying.

But since November, Hernandez, who lives in Norwood, has been happily working from home as a senior analyst at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Even back-to-back meetings are more bearable when they’re virtual. “Those days are draining,” she said, “but the only one in my presence is my cat, so I’m fine.”

Similarly, veterans grappling with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress, and other often hidden issues report feeling “more balanced in mind, body, and spirit working from home,” according to Danita Applewhite, who runs the nonprofit White Apple Institute to support veterans with disabilities.

Not having to go into the office also makes a big difference for the transgender and gender-diverse community, said Steph deNormand, the trans health program manager at Fenway Health. People are able to fully be themselves and even explore their gender identity more freely by wearing lipstick or growing a beard, knowing they don’t have to take the T to work every day, deNormand said.

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“It might not be that their workplace is the problem,” deNormand said. “It is the going to and from where they are likely to get stares . . . or comments or harassment.”

For those who have recently transitioned, going back to the office is “a huge fear,” deNormand said.

Sara Blackerby has been dealing with severe anxiety and depression for years. This “invisible disability” made it difficult to get out of bed, get in the car, and interact with her co-workers. Even a compassionate colleague asking if she was OK could trigger her anxiety.

But last year, Blackerby, 42, started a fully remote job as the operations manager at the Diversity@Workplace Consulting Group, and it’s a relief that all she has to do is roll over and pick up her laptop — and keep her camera off if she so chooses.

Before, she said: “I had to put this smile on my face because I don’t want anyone commenting. . . . I was spending so much energy to pretend like everything was fine that that’s where my energy was going.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.