Jackeline Stewart is EVP & head of multicultural communications at Edelman. Views are the author’s own.

During the past year, COVID-19 compelled corporations to redesign policies and procedures around people, their safety and the working environment.

For many, working from home unveiled a world that prioritized adaptability, choice and accountability. It put people first. With office reopenings, there is justified concern that these people-centric values will be eroded in the rush to “normal.” Many questions remain with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion and employee social and emotional wellness.

Return-to-office discussions give us permission to reimagine how we work today and tomorrow. Effective re-entry planning must include substantive consideration of physical reintegration and social impact to ensure the return is not a return to outdated, exclusionary workplace practices. In this way, DEI is central to the return to the office. There is much to consider and our role as DEI leaders and advocates will be critical in championing inclusive and equitable re-entry plans.

Not being in the office can reduce visibility – but that’s not always a bad thing  

People of color have not had equitable access to senior leadership even while in the office and have worked in office settings that prevented them from showing up as their authentic selves, especially in workplaces where they are the only employee of their background, or one of very few. This may be why 97% of Black knowledge workers (loosely defined as workers who generate value through their knowledge) want the future of work to be remote or hybrid. Employees of color have found ways to network and seek support in remote environments; a recent Washington Post article cites the trend of Black women who have worked remotely gathering into pods to create a collaborative environment.  

In addition, remote work has allowed employers to imagine a workplace where individuals’ time is not micromanaged, thereby empowering people of color to do their jobs without being judged – often very harshly – or having to prove themselves. 

Remote work drives transparency through technology 

Tech-enabled collaboration is at the heart of remote work – and many features of collaboration platforms introduce levels of transparency or democratization that don’t exist during in-person collaboration. Chat functions create a documented history of conversations where each comment is attributed to a speaker, resulting in careful considerations to remarks shared. Transcripts are provided, heightening accessibility. The ability to share video opened a vulnerable window to get to know people beyond their profession. And everyone was given the same space on the screen, a video square, giving the same real estate and seat at the table. 

On the other hand, online systems have blurred the lines of the office and our homes. Documented conversations and revision of policies regarding online activity can mitigate online harassment, gaslighting or cyberbullying.  

Return-to-office becomes a matter of privilege  

The pandemic disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx and Asian communities. Life in the office meant many people had to leave their burdens and responsibilities, disregarding the emotional trauma and distress they carried. However, working from home allowed members to seek virtual support, experience a flexible schedule and/or reaffirm commitment to themselves. It showed us that emergencies were okay to take time for, the need to make space for grief was protected, and that personal priorities would be honored.

In addition, many employees have taken on greater at-home child and/or elder caregiving responsibilities after the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The call to return to offices has had a disproportionate impact on this demographic. Studies have shown that women with child care responsibilities who have remote-work access are 32% less likely to leave their job compared to women with child care responsibilities who do not. This poses a problem if the decision-makers advocating return to office are men without primary child care responsibilities. And unlike race, age and disability, “caregiver” status is not protected by federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, creating a unique pressure for employees to return to the workplace.

A hybrid approach of in-person work and working from home gives us the opportunity to reimagine recruitment and retention

The trend of employers migrating to a hybrid model has allowed recruiters to cast a wider net, inviting a more diverse talent pool. In this way, people can seek work outside their immediate geographic area.  

Additionally, people of color (primarily Black people) endure longer commutes in metropolitan areas and are likely to live further away from work compared to their White counterparts. This is due to issues of affordability as well as the value of living closer to people you identify with. Returning to the office brings back the stress of longer commutes and navigating fewer transportation options. Cutting commute time with a hybrid model, or with flexible core hours, can help employees save money and ease their social and emotional wellness.

Working from home opened unique opportunities, empowering ERGs

Although many businesses have made diversity and inclusion pledges during the past year, many people of color worry that there may be no meaningful change once the public pressure dissipates. Employee resource groups, business resource groups and similar entities are designed to be a safe space for underrepresented groups that can, in theory, help to hold organizations accountable for honoring their commitments. Employers should consider ways to increase the level of psychological safety within ERGs by compensating members or providing meaningful incentives for the additional work they put in and by creating structures of accountability for how leadership engages with ERGs.

Ultimately, trust within the employer-employee contract is maintained with choice and honoring an individual’s agency. Companies looking to create an inclusive culture should consider these factors when developing new, forward-thinking policies that support employees in and out of the office.

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