Why returning to "normal" isn’t exciting for many Black employees.
Out of everything to come out of the past year, I didn’t expect crying after an interview to be one of them.
But there I was: lying on my back, exhausted, and a little teary. Interestingly, this was the aftermath of an interview that had gone pretty well. So, what was the problem?
Well, like a lot of us, I’d been working from home for over a year, mainly seeing co-workers through screens, having a flexible schedule, and not being one of a few Black faces in a space for 40+ hours a week.
I didn’t have to dodge curious hands trying to investigate a new hairstyle or overhear the latest discussion on how “ghetto” or “rough” a majority Black area was. I also didn't have to prove that I actually work in my office building to be allowed entry, or be met with blank faces when talking about a film or podcast that was a (Black) cultural moment.
And a simple in-person interview quickly reminded me of all the things I’d forgotten comes with working in an office, and brought back a wave of emotions I hadn’t realised had been absent for a while.
After protests across the globe following the murder of George Floyd, it seemed like there was a reckoning of sorts. Numerous conversations were being had about the negative experiences many Black people face when simply moving through the world. Conversations that previously many of us would have had amongst ourselves, were now being discussed more frequently and acknowledged on a much bigger scale.
And as many offices try to move away from remote working and return to “normal”, the potential to be reimmersed in those negative experiences means many Black employees have real worries about returning to the office.
Research carried out by Future Forum found that 97% of Black workers would prefer to continue with remote working or a hybrid model - allowing them to balance their time between the office and home.
And when asked if they wanted to return to the workplace full time, only 3% of Black employees said yes, whereas 21% of white workers were eager to get back.
This is not surprising when we consider that a lot of offices are majority white, so there is a greater sense of belonging for white employees, and less additional labour that white employees undertake to be heard or understood.
Whereas many Black professionals can often find themselves as the only Black person or person of colour in the office, which can mean that along with their actual job they are often tasked with being the “representative”, combating microaggressions or outright racist interactions, and feeling the pressure to code-switch or assimilate.
If this is what “normal” looks like, why would they want to get back to it?
For many Black employees, being away from this environment and still being able to fulfil their work duties, has proven that these negative experiences don’t just have to be a given part of work-life.
But being out of the office didn’t necessarily mean a complete eradication of microaggressions. For some, video conferencing gave co-workers a look into their homes and home attire, leading to a whole new range of comments and discussions on what is deemed “professional” or “appropriate”.
Clearly, just letting people work from home or pushing to get things back to “normal” is not enough. “Normal” was not working for many people pre-Covid, and trying to repackage things into a “new normal” just leaves room for the same issues in new, flashy, buzz-wordy boxes.
According to Future Forum, it ‘isn’t about simply giving Black employees the ability to work from home, while white executives return to old habits. Workplaces need to make sure they are enacting actual change while also embracing the flexible ways people want to work.
Though I still prefer remote working - being able to shut your laptop and yell into the void after a frustrating meeting is unmatched - it’s clear that if no real effort is being made to create actual diverse and inclusive work environments, Black employees are still at risk of dealing with the same pre-Covid work culture wherever their laptop is set up.