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Return to Office: Why Corporate America Must Redesign the Workplace

With many companies beginning their transition back to in-office work, business leaders are faced with the question of how to best redesign their workplace structure, culture, and protocols. This is an opportunity for leaders in business to focus on centering diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace while they are building out new processes from the ground up. While efforts have been made by companies in the past to create policies focused on “Diversity & Inclusion,” most were simply tweaking corporate policies within the existing structure. True equality in the workplace will require a complete redesign of how things are done from top to bottom, and the events of the past year have provided a unique opportunity for businesses to do just that. Unfortunately, after decades of research with little to no progress, it is hard to imagine that corporations will do what it takes to make real and lasting change.


With all the corporate chatter surrounding “Diversity & Inclusion” in recent years, there is still a significant lack of diversity in upper management and executive roles. This speaks to the fact that corporations are often implementing these policies and procedures because it is trendy, and do not actually care about creating truly diverse and inclusive work environments. At every level, the impactful ideas and contributions put forth by Black professionals in the workplace are undervalued and disregarded. At the same time, Black employees are expected to shoulder the responsibility of advancing “Diversity & Inclusion” initiatives at many companies. The few Black members of an organization are often expected to put in all the time, effort, and labor to recruit more diverse employees, attend fairs, and participate in speaking engagements on diversity-related topics. These additional work tasks are typically expected without additional incentives, recognition, pay, or support — further perpetuating the denigration of Black work.


Data has shown that Black workers face much more persistent challenges in the workplace than their white colleagues, with only around 50% of Black workers agreeing that they are “treated fairly at work” with a “good or very good” sense of belonging (compared with 70%+ of white workers agreeing with the same statements). Black employees in corporate America experience everything from microaggressions to blatant acts of discrimination in the workplace. Tokenism, Black tax, and “Pet to Threat” are a few examples of the many negative experiences Black employees face every day. “Pet to Threat” is a common experience for Black women in the workplace, where they initially experience tokenism, overprotection, mistreatment, and pressure to assimilate from their colleagues, only to be seen as a “threat” when they rightfully resist their status as an office “pet” and share their valuable ideas and unique perspectives.


“Black employees experience stress associated with working in a predominantly white workplace, which contributes to a lower sense of belonging. Importantly, it might not be work activities per se driving these effects, but all of the big and small social interactions that make up much of our work days.” - Brian Lowery, Stanford Professor

Ultimately, corporate workplaces must acknowledge that they are rooted in racist, heteronormative, misogynist, and ableist systems before any real and lasting change can be made. A few policy changes will not undo years of perpetual disenfranchisement for workers on the margins. There are several ways that employers can begin creating more inclusive work environments from the ground up, but it will require more work than most corporations are willing to shoulder. According to Future Forum, there are three aspects which business leaders must commit to in order to make strides in the right direction:


1. Taking full accountability for delivering fundamental change regarding inclusivity in the workplace. This requires a complete overhaul of everything from hiring practices, to the core values of the organization.


2. Centering inclusion, diversity, and equity in the overall work model. Leadership needs to center these principles in every aspect and level of the workplace to ensure employees feel safe, valued, and a sense of belonging at work.


3. Embrace and allow for flexible work. Businesses need to leverage technology to provide flexibility for employees to ensure the healthiest work environment possible.


Continuing to allow flexible work options wherever possible is a crucial aspect at this crossroads. Of Black people working remotely during this time, 97% desire a fully remote or hybrid model compared with 79% of white remote workers. Flexible work models have been found to significantly improve the work satisfaction of Black workers, with a 64% boost in stress management ability, a 25% improvement in work-life balance, and an overall increase in a sense of belonging at work. While flexible work options will not solve the deep-rooted problems within corporate America, they are a helpful first step in improving the overall health and wellbeing of Black employees.


Get to the point: With many companies beginning their transition back to in-office work, it is crucial for business leaders to consider how to center diversity, inclusion, and equity in the “new normal” they are developing for their workplace. True equality in the workplace will require a complete redesign of how things have been done in the past, and the events over the past year have provided a unique opportunity for businesses to do just that. Unfortunately, after decades of research in this space with little to no progress, it is hard to imagine that corporations will do what it takes to make real and lasting change. Ultimately, corporate workplaces must acknowledge that they are rooted in racist, heteronormative, misogynist, and ableist systems before any real and lasting change can be made, and a few policy changes will not erase years of perpetual disenfranchisement for workers on the margins.


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