Suppose for a moment that offices, microcosms of the real world, have always been less neutral spaces for people of color. Spaces that, over time, can sometimes feel like living too close to radiation. That is to say, sooner or later he was going to demand a toll.
But in 2019, we started to see some interesting movement. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 6% of those employed before the COVID-19 pandemic worked primarily from home: 26% of them were white, 18% were African American and 13% were of Latinos. In May 2020, 48.7 million people, or about 35% of the employed workforce, reported having worked from home in the previous four weeks due to COVID-19.
I was one of the new remote workers, and the experience revealed an unexpected and hitherto unexpressed joy: working, freed from daily interactions in the office, leaving concentration to stay at work. Absent any other interpersonal quirks.
My first formative personal experience with remote work was long before the pandemic. I was working on several projects for a large international advertising agency, setting the tone and approach of a global advertising campaign for a large telecommunications company. The editorial work took months of phone meetings and emails. It went well. What I had written made telecommunications people forget for a second that they were telecommunications people and instead made them feel like they were rock and roll. So, an all-around win – and eventually I was invited to a meeting with the CEO to talk about next steps and future plans.
When he entered the conference room, however, he was… startled. Visibly. A contact there later told me: The CEO didn’t expect me to be black. He told her that my race made no difference. I never worked for this company again. His call. Not mine. I suspect it was the inflexibility of my physical presence – the close recall of my race – that made me lose the job.
But during the pandemic, when working from home became the norm, physical presence ceased to be a factor. In November 2021, I was hired as an assistant vice president in a marketing company. Six months earlier, I had quit a job as an editor at a digital news and entertainment media platform called Ozy Media, where the worst boss I’ve ever had – also an African American man — crashed the company, triggering a slew of federal fraud lawsuits and investigations. .
I had imagined that I was professionally toxic by association. During the interview process and on Zoom call after Zoom call, my soon-to-be new colleagues assured me that was not the case. They said “a guy like me” had to be somewhere I was, dare we use the word, loved?
It’s always a good feeling, though rare, but it hints at something more fundamental. There had been change. Telecommuting came to the rescue. In real life I am 6ft 1in and 220lbs. On a Zoom call, I’m about an inch tall and just as wide. Physical: disappeared. Beyond that, I imagine virtual work also broke down many of the other unspoken barriers associated with cultural biases. What I would call the “factor of otherness”.
Is this what meritocratic work experience looks like?
I asked around me. Sherman Wellons, the African-American owner of Inertiart Studio, an animation boutique in Los Angeles, told me — on Zoom — that his main reason for preferring to work from home is because it’s more productive. His secondary reason? Working online frees him. In other words, not having to be in the office where his presence cannot be reduced, is simply easier.
Projecting the right image for remote work is easily managed with accessories, he said. First, he took off his beanie, he told me, and gestured to the Black Panther pajama top he was wearing. “Yeah. I’d trade it for a shirt,” he said, smiling. And for the main dishhe added a pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses. No-prescription, à la Clark Kent.
Then he waved his hand. A flourish and a “Ta-da!”
“It’s my ‘outfit that makes people feel comfortable,'” Wellons said.
Face-to-face meetings in offices have always hammered home the unchanging reality that the marketing industry, according to a Marketing Week 2020 survey, is 88% white and just 2% black. Wellons always felt that his physical presence was something his mostly white colleagues had to “adapt to”.
Online, with a bit of dressing, he had more control over the adjustments.
Shanda Wilson, 41, African-American founder and CEO of a Washington, DC-based digital services company called INSHIFT, said she prefers remote work for similar reasons. Online, she is more productive. And she’s an introvert, for whom “the office may not really be useful”, she told me. “For lots of different reasons. With remote work, I’ve seen some people really take off.
What type of people?
“People,” she said.
While I’m sure she means “people” in general, that’s also a subtlety. I’m also sure she means “people” who look like her; As I do. “People” who could spend their whole working day in high tech and the only black face they see is in a mirror.
“People,” who in a November survey of 10,737 knowledge workers conducted by workplace research consortium Future Forum, indicated that they preferred remote work to office work.
“In the United States, 86% of Hispanic/Latino knowledge workers and 81% of Asian/Asian American and Black knowledge workers would prefer a hybrid or fully remote arrangement, compared to 75% of white knowledge workers,” the report found. ‘investigation. Future Forum also reported that between May and November 2021, sense of belonging at work increased by 24% for black respondents and 32% for Hispanic/Latin respondents, compared to 5% for white respondents.
Given that white male knowledge workers are more likely to be present in offices today, and less likely to work virtually, the survey also speaks to the double-edged nature of remote working. Working from home helps people of color avoid some pitfalls, but it also excludes them from the benefits of proximity.
With some of us now returning to office work by choice, physics – and its disparities – are things we still face, directly or indirectly.
Let’s hope for more meritocratic American workplaces. Until there? I’ll join you on Zoom.
Eugene S. Robinson is a writer and assistant vice president of content marketing at WongDoody, a marketing company. This article was produced in partnership with Zócalo Public Square.