Belonging is a key component of the human experience, so it’s no surprise that people value its presence in their work environment. A sense of belonging—or the feeling of being included and accepted for one’s authentic self—positively impacts not only an employee’s well-being and workplace performance, but the entire organization as well. While fostering belonging for employees of color in the traditional office setting has proven to be a challenge for companies, the pandemic’s impact on work dynamics has led underrepresented talent to finally feel the belonging they’ve sought out.
A study conducted by the Future Forum revealed that employees of color feel a greater sense of belonging under flexible work models such as working remotely or a mix of in-person and remote work (aka hybrid work). Out of the 10,000 workers polled, 93% wanted flexibility in when and how they work, while 76% desired flexibility in where they work. Taking race and ethnicity into account, the data showed that 80% of Black, 78% of Latinx, and 77% of Asian employees wanted a flexible working experience, either through a hybrid or remote-only model.
The statistics don’t come as a surprise to many career and diversity, equity, and inclusion experts, including Yai Vargas, vice president of strategic engagement and initiatives at the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility. “As 9-to-5, in-house professionals [of color] have been working from home remotely or in a hybrid scenario for almost two years, it’s only natural that their priorities, lifestyles, and responsibilities have shifted,” says Vargas, who is also founder of The Latinista. “So now to have to go back to what they call the rat race, and commuting, and engaging, and being physically present in front of a computer next to colleagues in a brick-and-mortar space—just to have your manager feel or assume that you’re actively working—is really difficult.”
According to the report, traditional workplace culture fuels “code switching, homogenous professional networks, and outdated professional norms, including presenteeism.” The COVID-19 pandemic alongside the protests that followed the 2020 police killings have turned a microscope onto company culture. It’s exposed what many people of color, particularly Black employees, have navigated throughout their entire professional careers. With the ability to craft the workplace of their choosing, POC employees are opting for workplace flexibility.
“People of color—specifically women of color [and] nonbinary people of color—prefer not to have to work in the office because, frankly, the office is built to accommodate and work for white men,” says Cynthia Pong, JD, an author, feminist career strategist, and the founder of Embrace Change. “They don’t have to be subjected to or be always on their toes, expecting a potential instance of racism or discrimination against them, a microaggression. Not having to deal with those things and being able to control when you’re in an environment where that might happen or reduce that kind of interface with people.” The report’s data aligns with the findings in Pong’s white paper, The Great Resignation: How to Minimize Company Losses as Employees Continue to Quit. “Employers really have to reckon with the increased demand and expectations for flexibility one way or another,” Pong notes.
The hybrid work model can offer a more equitable experience for employees of color, but it also comes with a unique set of challenges around day-to-day rapport, traditional management, and trust building. When physical offices closed, managers had to quickly pivot to accommodate the new work dynamic without necessarily having the skills to adapt and engage with their teams within this new framework. Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, this “new normal” requires a different skill set from managers and employers.
Sherry Sims, founder and CEO of the Black Career Women’s Network, says that managers need to understand the work styles of their team members. Take Zoom meetings, for instance. “Leaders need to be flexible and know that it’s okay for half your team to have the camera on; and if the other doesn’t [have it on] it doesn’t mean they’re not engaging,” the DE&I professional notes. “If they are giving an update on a report and they’re participating, and they’re engaged, just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean that something negative is going on.”
Employee-manager expectations have improved since the start of the pandemic; however, in order for companies to fully meet the needs of their workforce, leadership should spearhead transparent, open communication. This is an opportunity for both managers and direct reports to get clear on what is expected of them. Managers, Sims says, should ask a number of questions to their team: “How do they feel about the virtual space? How can I support you to make sure that we are maximizing this virtual space to the best of our abilities? What are you most comfortable with?” She’s also candid in emphasizing the importance and agency of employees of color. The career strategist encourages employees to set clear expectations—and document them, so there’s no room for interpretation.
Pong adds the importance of employees maintaining work boundaries. But she also acknowledges the unspoken caveat that, whether virtual or in-person, workplaces aren’t always psychologically safe for employees of color. Keeping that in mind, she points out that the priority should be on companies to equip their managers with the resources to oversee their teams holistically, leading with psychological safety and inclusion.
Performative allyship (as evident in summer 2020), lack of cultural competency, and mismanagement are among the issues that can make people of color experience a lack of belonging in the workplace. However, through intentional efforts, leaders can create an environment where people of color feel not only seen, but deeply valued in the workplace. “It’s difficult for managers to understand what their professional experiences have been if they don’t ask questions about experiences,” Vargas says. “A lot of communication has to happen.” That means having dialogues about employees’ cultural nuances, responsibilities, and biases they’ve faced. No, those conversations haven’t historically been part of workplace culture, but there’s no better time—or better reason—to have them.
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