We’re more than three years away from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is no longer a national public health emergency, and many companies have made it very clear: they want their workforce back in the office full-time or on a hybrid model. Companies such as Salesforce and Google have tried using ultimatums and bribes to convince employees to start coming in. On June 15, Charles Schwab joined the many corporations requiring most or all employees to return to the office.
Google’s change to their three-day-a-week office policy now includes checking employee badge swipes to hold employees who have simply chosen not to report to the office accountable via their performance reviews. This policy has received backlash from employees, who have pushed back with memes saying things such as, “Check my work, not my badge.”
A lot of employees made decisions based on the expectation that they would not have to come back in person: Some employees bought houses far away from the office, for example, and others were able to be caregivers for family members with less strain on their time and energy. A Bloomberg report on AT&T’s return-to-office mandate questioned whether the strategy is “a mass layoff in disguise,” because it will force about 15% of the 60,000 managers ordered to return to the office to either relocate or quit.
It’s true that some employers are keen on their employees coming to work in-person. Business leaders have offered a variety of reasons that remote work is not the way to go, from it being detrimental to the development of early career professionals to empty commercial offices posing a danger to the economy.
Even Martha Stewart has weighed in with her opinion that it’s time to go back to the office. But a question we need to be asking is how does the return-to-office push affect segments of the workforce, especially where diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are involved?
One important takeaway with DEI efforts is that there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one person may not work for someone else.
The impact of mandated office work on DEI efforts
A McKinsey report on hybrid work found that traditionally marginalized employees—including women, Black employees, LGBTQ+ employees and employees with disabilities—were more likely to quit their jobs if they were not offered a hybrid work option. And a Gallup survey revealed that “six in 10 exclusively remote employees are ‘extremely likely to change companies’ if not offered remote flexibility.”
Grace Alexander is a full-time copywriter and has been working remotely for about 16 years now. She says that she chose the route of self-employment because of her children.
“I quit working a real job 16 years ago when I had my youngest,” Alexander says. “I was actually working as an executive chef. It was like 80 hours a week and I said, ‘Look, can you hire another relief chef? Because I can’t. I have a newborn.’”
When that didn’t happen, Alexander quit her job to work from home.
Balancing children and work is absolutely a barrier to working parents, especially with childcare shortages where there are not enough workers and centers which have priced out many lower-income families. It may also be a challenge for parents to balance their work schedules with childcare center hours. Additionally, there is some evidence that factors associated with remote work can negatively impact mental health for some parents.
Now that her oldest is 16, Alexander says that returning to the office would still be impossible due to her collapsed spine.
“Working eight to nine hours consecutively in a chair, in an office setting? Absolute no go,” she says. “Commute, absolute no go.”
“Working from home allows so many people to get back into the workforce or move into a better position in the workforce,” Alexander continues. “Now they’re trying to force everyone back into the office and it’s going to shut a lot of really great people out of the workplace.”
The DEI argument against returning to the office
Netta Jenkins is the author of The Inclusive Organization and the CEO of Aerodei, a platform that measures organizational DEI efforts. She feels that organizations should consult their employees on return-to-office plans.
“There’s a difference with an organization saying [they] would love for folks to come to the office if [they] can, but that [they] want employees to make that decision,” Jenkins explains. “I think it’s really interesting because it [just] turns away from all of that DEI work that organizations focus on and that we work on.”
“Even after COVID, or during COVID,” Jenkins continues, “It was very clear that organizations could actually sustain and that employees were being more productive. It cut down [on] costs for so many Americans.”
This cost cutting was found through employees moving to areas with cheaper costs of living while maintaining their salaries. Jenkins argues that if the push for employees to return to the office is to improve productivity, then the numbers should reflect that.
“If it’s productivity, then why are they still at your organization?” Jenkins poses. “That’s a whole other conversation: performance reviews that are done. Shouldn’t that be captured within someone’s progress and the impact that they’re providing and making?”
The DEI argument for the return to the office
Not all DEI experts are hard-set against return-to-office policies. Inclusive workplace consultant, author and public speaker Ash Beckham thinks that returning to the office might be helpful in creating a culture of belonging that can’t be found behind a screen.
“The opposite of belonging is isolation,” Beckham says. “I think there’s a lot of tax and changes that organizations made to be able to most effectively be inclusive in a remote environment. Then we went to hybrid and some are going back to mandated in-person [work], and I think those all face a unique set of challenges regarding DEI, but also a unique set of opportunities.”
Despite this, Beckham acknowledges that employees must be intentional about the way that they approach returning to the office.
“Now that we’re going back, we can’t lose sight of the individual needs of our employees to make sure that they can thrive in their most authentic way,” Beckham says. “There were a lot of DEI initiatives that were switched and molded and modified to be more applicable in a remote environment. I think, again, it’s up to the organization to be able to continue those.”
This means making sure that workplaces are more accessible to people who have disabilities, and offering the opportunity to be hybrid. It’s also important to make sure that inclusive bathrooms are available for transgender employees. Several transgender individuals transitioned during the pandemic and are now having to prepare to return to the office after being able to experiment with their gender identity behind a screen.
“There’s no easier way of coming out than just putting your pronouns on your Zoom screen,” Beckham says. “That is the easiest way. There’s no conversation, there’s no question, there’s no anything. Everyone’s doing it, right? [And our] straight cisgendered allies that everyone would assume [their pronouns]—[the fact] that they’re doing it too is just an act of inclusion in and of itself.”
But changing pronouns on Zoom isn’t a substitute for genuine, human connection. Beckham argues that being together in person can also help cultivate an inclusive work environment.
“Just getting to understand the humanity of an individual—that connection is watercooler conversations; getting a drink or a coffee after work,” Beckham explains.
Employers: take DEI efforts into consideration
Employers need to be intentional about their return-to-office strategies and involve their DEI teams in all stages of their plan.
“In all aspects—whether it’s professional development, return-to-work strategies—DEI is not an HR issue. It’s an organizational issue,” Beckham says. “You would never not include HR; you would never not include finance.”
It’s also important for employers to include support for employees when asking them to return to the office. This includes flexibility in schedules and providing hybrid options, having an inclusive bathroom policy and reevaluating accessibility for employees who have disabilities. In some cases, disability accommodations may need to include the option to work fully remotely.
And it means offering support to employees who may have to change their childcare plans. In an op-ed for The Seattle Times, corporate counselor Erin Caldwell writes, “If employers insist on returning to in-person work, they should offer on-site child care to ease the burden on working parents.”
In short, employers should ask themselves why they are requiring their employees to come back to the office. Culture might not be enough of an answer. If there are no performance issues, the best option may be to allow staff to make these choices for themselves.