It’s 4 p.m. on a Monday and I’m out for a walk. I am also on time. Last Friday, I received an invitation to a meeting to discuss my workplace’s ongoing anti-racism efforts. The notification made my heart race. I am a junior faculty member at an elite university and one of only two tenure-track faculty at my school. I could expect 90 minutes of the school’s slow pace to diversify the faculty, student body, and curriculum, my mostly white colleagues occasionally stealing glances to gauge my reaction.
Can I skip the meeting? No, my absence would be noted. Thank goodness for remote work. Instead of spending the meeting under a fluorescent light, trying to hide my face in a neutral mask, I spent it walking briskly around my neighborhood, which regulated my stress and left me feeling more energized than exhausted.
Over the past 18 months, many organizations have been quick to assert that they value black lives, black employees, and anti-racism work. Black employees are asked to carry immense emotional burdens that their white colleagues do not carry. We are being asked to ignore racial “mega-threats” – the mainstream negative news stories about racial violence. We are asked to teach racism to our white colleagues and take on anti-racist work (often unpaid) by leading workshops, serving on committees, or providing a “black perspective” at meetings. We are asked to endure microaggressions discreetly to avoid being seen as troublemakers. We are more watched than our white colleagues. All the while, we are underfunded, undermentored, isolated and ignored. Perhaps that’s why a recent study by think tank Slack Future Forum found that 97% of Black Americans surveyed preferred an all-remote or hybrid workplace.
I cannot underestimate the immense burden that black employees face in predominantly white workplaces. If organizations want to support black employees — a common refrain, especially since the summer of 2020 — the only thing they need to do is allow for the flexibility that can help black employees thrive.
Remote work provides Black employees with much-needed space and flexibility to meet those additional challenges while doing their job. Restricting 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, that’s for sure. Our news feeds have been inundated with articles disparaging the lack of face-to-face connection in the office, suggesting that remote work is somehow failing workers. However, American companies have been failing black employees – who are paid less than their white colleagues for the same jobs with additional charges – for decades. No wonder black workers are more stressed and less confident in their organizations.
Additionally, remote work offers organizations the opportunity to better train and support their employees, by creating formalized mentorship programs, strengthening onboarding and training processes, funding employee resource groups, and listening to employees by regularly collecting data on their experiences in the workplace.
With that in mind, here are three types of flexibility that organizations can allow moving forward.
Flexibility in how employees work: Reconsider the mandate that everyone turns on their camera for Zoom meetings. Videoconferencing, while convenient, doesn’t have to be the go-to medium for communication. Phone calls work perfectly fine. (Better yet, make this meeting an email.) Joining a meeting doesn’t have to mean showing your face or your house to your colleagues. For example, once I realized that I could use meeting time to walk around the neighborhood (without having to worry about whether today’s afro would be deemed “professional” enough), I was less likely to skip meetings.
Flexibility in employee workplace: Give employees the freedom to work from home, hotel or cafe, all the time or part of the time, and give them the freedom to say when it’s case. Employees should also have the freedom to work across multiple time zones. For example, a friend moved from upstate New York to Mexico City. She still works for the same company and is now thriving in her new black expat community (and enjoying a break from American racism). If her company demands an in-person return to her headquarters, she will quit 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 “great reverse migration” among black people. She now lives closer to her family and is surrounded by black professionals. She’s willing to return to her old job, which was loath to lose her, and attempts to recruit her again, but only if she can primarily work remotely. Allowing remote work can only help organizations recruit and retain black talent.
Flexibility in when employees work: Not everyone is suited to work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Fortunately, employees don’t all have to work at the same time to be productive. Asynchronous work can actually be more productive than synchronous work, especially for remote workers. For example, working remotely can be logistically difficult when employees work in different time zones. However, embracing asynchronous working can help organizations avoid these pitfalls, leaving them with happier, more productive employees.
This Black History Month, rather than issuing the usual empty solidarity statements, support your black employees. An integral part of achieving your organization’s anti-racism goals is allowing remote work. Recently, many offices around the world have reverted to virtual as a result of the omicron variant. Leaders, before you rush to restore 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 Project OpEd Fellow. She wrote this piece while working remotely in Mexico City. Follow her on Twitter @CydneyDupree.