As LeRon Barton weighed his options, he realized what he had to do.
If he took a pay cut of $5,000, he could have a fully remote tech job that would let him roam the country and give him the flexibility he craved. Or he could keep his salary and stay at his current job — a network engineer position based at a San Francisco hospital that required occasional site visits and kept him tethered to the region.
Patients at the hospital sometimes gave him funny looks when he came to check their room’s Wi-Fi, recalled Barton, who is Black, and staff members questioned his competence. Working remotely during the pandemic showed him a whole different lifestyle: no commute, more time with his family and a break from the onslaught of microaggressions and other racist behavior he’d had to endure.
Barton chose the pay cut.
“You’re totally out of the rigamarole,” said Barton, who is now a writer and technical project manager at a Southern California tech company. “And just the quality of life has improved drastically.”
The back-to-the-office campaign by many employers has run into resistance from workers. They’ve struck a truce of sorts — hybrid work.
It’s a sentiment expressed by many Black workers and other people of color who found that remote work lessened the racism they faced on the job.
But it forces workers to make a difficult choice — prioritize your mental health or endure for the sake of your career. Remote job opportunities are shrinking as more companies require that workers come back to the office. And even in hybrid workplaces, remote employees can be at a disadvantage for career advancement since managers sometimes forget about them or assume they are less productive than their in-person peers, a concept called proximity bias.
“Jobs are built on social capital. We could miss out on those happy hour opportunities,” Barton said. But he’s willing to sacrifice the in-office networking. “Honestly,” he said, “I would trade that in for my peace of mind.”
Throughout the pandemic, survey after survey showed what some workers of color have known for years: Workplace politics and discrimination can make the office an undesirable place to be.
In 2021, just 3% of Black white-collar “knowledge workers” wanted to return to full-time in-office work, compared with 21% of white ones, according to research from Future Forum, a project backed by instant messaging firm Slack. The research found that hybrid or remote work arrangements increased Black workers’ feelings of belonging at work and boosted their ability to manage stress.
Part of the push for remote work can be explained by the preferences of millennial and younger workers, who want the freedom to choose where they do their jobs, said LaTonya Wilkins, founder and chief executive of Change Coaches, a leadership development firm focused on workplace culture.
But how supervisors evaluate workers is also a factor.
Career coach Jermaine L. Murray said many of his clients, relatives and friends have expressed their reluctance to return to the office. Clients of all races have told him they prefer remote work, but his Black clients have more frequently emphasized that continuing to work from home allowed them to avoid office politics.
“It almost felt like the distance allowed for a more objective environment,” said Murray, founder of JupiterHR, which provides career development services.
Smaller and cheaper towns and counties across the nation are competing to lure higher-income workers from California and other costly places.
With remote work, the data confirm whether workers are getting their jobs done, and there’s less room for co-workers to take undeserved credit since there are fewer opportunities to socialize on the job, he said. Clients whose companies are switching to hybrid work are looking for other jobs, Murray said. And because of the sluggish economy and cooling labor market, he said, they’re “quiet quitting” their current positions rather than leaving immediately.
Opportunities for remote-only jobs, however, are starting to shrink.
In April, about 11% of U.S. job postings on LinkedIn were for remote work, down from a peak of nearly 21% in March 2022, according to a May report from LinkedIn. Such jobs were in high demand: Nearly half of job applications via the website in April were for fully remote positions, and only one-third were for jobs without remote or hybrid options.
“Professionals that have the opportunity to be in these remote environments and not experience microaggressions at work or not do as much code-switching or all of those things have now said, ‘Oh, that was great for my mental health’ or, ‘It helped me be a little more authentic at work,’” said Andrew McCaskill, a career expert with LinkedIn. “And a lot of employees and workers just don’t want to give that up.”
For one 35-year-old paralegal from the Midwest, remote work is now a must.
“As a Black employee and someone who is neurodivergent, it’s just better for me,” said the paralegal, who asked that their name and gender not be published for fear of harming future employment opportunities. “I’m able to be more productive. I’m able to focus better. I get so much more work done here in my own space where I’m able to be who I am and think.”
Previous jobs often involved being the only Black worker in the office and being judged based on social interactions, the paralegal said.
If the paralegal was quiet and focused only on work, managers said to stop being antisocial and hard to approach. On bubbly or chatty days, the paralegal was admonished for not doing enough work. If the paralegal participated in a passionate conversation around the water cooler, criticism would soon follow: Don’t be so aggressive.
“There’s never really a happy medium,” the paralegal said. With remote work, however, those problems are eliminated, and the paralegal can focus solely on getting the job done.
Management experts argue that remote work opportunities have implications far beyond individual work experiences and affect corporate culture as a whole.
A return to in-person work might seem like a good thing. But some red-state leaders worry the return-to-work economy will limit their talent pool.
Eliminating remote options can also hurt companies’ ability to recruit a diverse workforce. With remote positions, companies can hire people living in geographic areas that are more diverse than the communities around their headquarters.
“Companies have to recognize that if they really want to meet their commitments to diversity and inclusion, one of the best levers they can pull for that is remote work,” said McCaskill of LinkedIn.
Employers considering a return-to-office mandate should make sure they are giving workers a reason to be in the office, which can make in-person work more purposeful and give fewer opportunities for microaggressions, said Wilkins, the Change Coaches CEO.
In a hybrid situation, managers need to make sure employees working remotely are not left out or inadvertently penalized by proximity bias, she said. Part of that could include creating opportunities for employees to get exposure and recognition for their work even if they are remote and destigmatizing mental health support, management experts said.
As senior director of talent strategy at UC Irvine, Kimberly D. Jones made sure to have candid conversations with employees about their concerns regarding a return to the office. One employee shared experiences with her that predated Jones’ arrival at the department and explained how those situations contributed to their anxiety about being at work.
Jones said she addressed the issue with the employee and the leadership team and now checks in with that employee regularly to make sure they feel comfortable at work. She also makes a point to walk through the work space and greet everyone in the morning, in part to get a sense of the office dynamics and in part to make herself available to any employees who might have concerns.
“You have a responsibility as a leader to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and can be successful,” Jones said.
Women of color especially face difficult situations at work.
Professor Joan C. Williams and her collaborators have built a database of more than 18,000 people as they research the intersection of racial and gender bias in white-collar professions. In almost every dataset she’s seen, women of color report the most bias and the least workplace fairness, she said.
Particularly telling is a survey question that asks respondents whether they have access to career-enhancing work. Nearly 90% of white men say yes; for women of color, that percentage sinks as low as 50%.
“No matter what industry they work, no matter what company … it’s unbelievably consistent,” said Williams, who is a professor at University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, and founding director of the university’s Center for WorkLife Law.
The pandemic changed expectations of work-life balance. A small but growing group of companies has started a four-day week to improve that balance.
Structural engineer Rapunzel Amador-Lewis has gotten used to being one of very few women, much less women of color, at her workplaces.
She remembers being told by a well-meaning male mentor at her first job that as a female engineer, she’d have to “run 110 yards to score a touchdown.” After men at work sites called her “honey” and assumed she was there to deal with office matters rather than inspect their work, she started bringing along a male co-worker — and although that cut down on harassment, the men sometimes assumed her co-worker was the engineer, not her. Her confidence in her skills and abilities was misinterpreted as arrogance and documented as such in a performance review.
“I have never had a woman engineer to report directly to,” said Amador-Lewis, who immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area from the Philippines as a child in 1985. “I’ve had peers, one or two peers every now and then, but I’ve never had a mentor, a female mentor, especially not a woman of color mentor.”
Eventually, Amador-Lewis started her own consulting firm and began working from home to better balance her personal and work lives. It took a lot of effort, but she relished being her own boss, she said. She later went back to corporate staff roles at engineering firms but said she left her last job over negotiations to add more remote days to her schedule and resistance to changes she wanted to make to the corporate culture, dynamics and inclusion in the workplace.
Would she ever go back to in-person work? She doesn’t love the idea.
“If I find enlightenment somewhere,” Amador-Lewis said with a laugh. She is currently taking a sabbatical and embarked on a 107-day cruise around the world with her husband while figuring out her next steps.
Maybe she’d accept a hybrid schedule, she said. After all, remote work allows her to take care of the chronic migraines she’s suffered since 2013 and helps her balance her caregiving responsibilities for her husband, who has had seizures. “I would never 100% do in-office again.”
Barton, the technical project manager, is also adamant about the benefit of remote work. Despite the shrinking pool of remote job opportunities and the possibility for remote positions to come with smaller salaries, he knows what’s most important to him.
“What do you value?” he said. “Do you value your sanctity or do you value the dollar?”
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