32% of employees say they don’t want to return to the office, ever. There’s a lot to love about remote work — more flexibility, no commute, working next to your cute new puppy — but for some, the return to the office debate goes much deeper, much more emotional and personal.
Some people don’t want to go back to the office, ever, because they’re concerned about workplace harassment and discrimination.
In-Person, In Fear
As remote work has its perks, office culture has its benefits as well. Some leaders praise the office as the be-all, end-all place for collaboration and new ideas. There’s socialization, the ability to quickly bounce ideas off other people, or just some fun perks like ping pong or a free breakfast bar.
But when people work in close quarters, workplace harassment is a reality for many employees. In 2019, 32% of all workplace harassment charges to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were based on gender, 33% were race-based harassment charges.
When we talk about workplace harassment and discrimination, it’s not just about horrible physical encounters or verbal confrontations. It’s also about the small, everyday actions that can build up and break down an employee: microaggressions, subtle bullying, or regular discomfort at work.
“What we do know is that normal office culture generally sucked for a whole lot of people,” Elie Mystal writes in “The Nation.” “It’s a culture forged in the crucible of white male patriarchy and can be oppressive for those who don’t fit within its narrow margins. The proverbial water cooler, where white managers tell me so much desperately needed collaboration takes place, was actually a minefield of petty slights and subtle bullying disguised as awkward banter. I don’t think I know any Black people who enjoy being engaged in a drive-by “so what do you think about the riots… I mean protests” conversation by a white manager while they’re waiting for the Keurig.”
It’s no surprise that when “office culture” caters to only a specific group of people, members of that specific group are far more likely to want to return to the office. According to a recent study by Future Forum, only three percent of Black employees want to go into the office full-time. 1 in 2 Black employees from the same study said they felt a “greater sense of workplace belonging” while working from home.
Going back can lead to more discrimination than before…
With the ongoing threat of COVID-19, some employees are asking for specific accommodations if they’re required to work in person — accommodations that can lead to taxing, drawn-out processes for both the employee and the employer. In Georgia, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued an Atlanta company for denying a remote worker her request to work from home. She requested to continue to work remotely because of a medical condition that increases her risk of contracting COVID-19; after getting denied, she was fired two months later for “performance issues.” While the case is not yet resolved, the resolution could set a precedent for who gets to work from home — especially when employees can do their jobs fully remotely.
“Employers can find themselves in a tricky situation if they deny work-from-home requests after allowing other staff members to work remotely,” Trey Reeves, an employment lawyer at Fisher Phillips said in an interview with “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.”
For those who get to stay remote but have coworkers that go back, there’s also the issue of inequity and unfair treatment. Who’s more likely to get a raise or promotion to a higher-paying job? The person whose manager sees them every day, and has great banter with, or the person who’s at home and only sees their manager on Zoom twice a week? Hopefully, both people have an equal chance at the raise — but, that’s not always the case, and it’s hard to prove how short-term differences in interactions can lead to long-term inequity.
….but, universal working from home isn’t the answer.
Just because some employees find solace and comfort in working from home, this doesn’t mean that workplace harassment and discrimination go away when there’s no communal workspace. Some tech workers reported even more gender and racial harassment while working from home, citing the ease of exchanging inappropriate messages virtually, more one-on-one meetings and less surveillance as reasons.
Working from home doesn’t remove you from “office culture.” Company culture can still play a big role in employee satisfaction — and disappointment — even when employees are working from home.
So, what’s the solution?
Many employees don’t want to go back to the office because of workplace harassment and discrimination, yet working from home isn’t always free of those same harms. There’s no perfect workplace, but there are optimal workplace conditions and boundaries depending on a specific employee’s needs. We aren’t going to find a one-size-fits-all solution to a massive workplace shift affecting millions of very different employees. We need to listen to our employees and work to find solutions that focus on the work getting done and the wellbeing of our employees — and in doing so, create a new, safe and inclusive office culture.
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