Black employees will thrive with remote work — it’s anti-racist
It is 4 p.m. on a Monday and I am on a walk. I am also on the clock. Last Friday, I received a calendar invite for a meeting to discuss my workplace’s ongoing efforts toward anti-racism. The notification made my heart skip a beat. I am a junior faculty member at an elite university, and one of only two Black tenure-track faculty members at my school. I could expect 90 minutes on the school’s sluggish pace toward diversifying the faculty, student body and curriculum, with my mostly-white colleagues occasionally stealing glances to gauge my reaction.
Could I skip the meeting? No — my absence would be noted. Thank goodness for remote work. Instead of spending the meeting under fluorescent light, trying to will my face into a neutral mask, I spent it walking briskly around my neighborhood, which regulated my stress and left me feeling more energized than depleted.
Over the past 18 months, many organizations have scrambled to affirm that they value Black lives, Black employees, and the work of anti-racism. Black employees are asked to carry immense emotional burdens that their white colleagues are not. We are asked to ignore racial “mega-threats” — negative major news stories about racial violence. We are asked to teach our white colleagues about racism and take on (often uncompensated) anti-racism labor by leading workshops, taking part in committees, or providing a “Black perspective” in meetings. We are asked to quietly bear microaggressions to avoid being seen as troublemakers. We are more scrutinized than our white colleagues. All the while, we are under-resourced, under-mentored, isolated and ignored. Perhaps this is why a recent study by Slack think tank Future Forum found that 97 percent of Black American respondents preferred a fully remote or hybrid workplace.
I cannot understate the immense burden that Black employees face in predominantly white workplaces. If organizations wish to support Black employees — a common refrain, particularly since summer 2020 — the one thing they must do is allow the flexibility that can help Black employees thrive.
Remote work offers Black employees much-needed space and flexibility to navigate these added challenges while doing our jobs. To restrict the flexibility that remote work offers will only make it harder for organizations to recruit and retain employees of color.
Remote work is not without its challenges, to be sure. Our news feeds have been flooded with articles denigrating the lack of face-to-face connection in the office, suggesting that remote work somehow fails workers. However, corporate America has been failing Black employees — who are paid less than white colleagues for the same jobs with added burdens — for decades. No wonder Black workers are more stressed in and less trustful of their organizations.
Moreover, remote work offers an opportunity for organizations to better train and support their employees, creating formalized mentorship programs, bolstering onboarding and training processes, funding employee resource groups, and listening to employees by regularly collecting data on their experiences in the workplace.
Given this, here are three types of flexibility that organizations can allow moving forward.
Flexibility in how employees work: Reconsider the mandate that everyone turn their cameras on for Zoom meetings. Video conferencing, while convenient, does not have to be the go-to means of communication. Phone calls work perfectly fine. (Better yet, make that meeting an email.) Joining a meeting does not have to mean showing your face or your home to your colleagues. For example, once I realized that I could use meeting time to stroll around the neighborhood (without having to worry whether today’s afro would be deemed “professional” enough), I was less likely to skip meetings.
Flexibility in where employees work: Give employees the freedom to work from home, hotel, or coffee shop, all or part of the time, and give them the freedom to say when that is. Employees also should have the freedom to work across time zones. For example, one friend moved from upstate New York to Mexico City. She still works for the same company and is now thriving in her new community of Black expats (and enjoying a break from American racism). If her company mandates an in-person return to their headquarters, she will resign and find another job that allows her to work remotely.
Another friend moved from New England to Atlanta, in an example of the increasingly-common “reverse great migration” among Black people. She now lives closer to family and is surrounded by Black professionals. She is open to returning to her former job, which was loath to lose her and is attempting to recruit her back, but only if she can mostly work remotely. Allowing remote work can only help organizations recruit and retain Black talent.
Flexibility in when employees work: Not everyone is well-suited to working from 9-5, Mondays through Fridays. Fortunately, employees don’t all have to work at the same time to be productive. Asynchronous work actually can be more productive than synchronous work, particularly for remote workers. For example, remote work can prove logistically challenging when employees are working in different time zones. However, embracing asynchronous work can help organizations avoid these pitfalls, leaving them with happier and more productive employees.
This Black History Month, rather than releasing the usual empty solidarity statements, support your Black employees. An integral part of meeting your organization’s anti-racism goals is allowing remote work. Recently, many offices around the world have moved back to virtual in the wake of the omicron variant. Leaders, before you jump to reinstate in-person work, consider embracing the flexibility that remote work offers. Your Black employees will thank you for it.
Cydney Hurston Dupree is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. She wrote this piece while working remotely in Mexico City. Follow her on Twitter @CydneyDupree.