4 Tips for Navigating the Return to the Office as a Person of Color
4 Tips for Navigating the Return to the Office as a Person of Color

During the last 18 months, COVID-19 forced many businesses and organizations to find innovative methods to operate virtually. Working from home afforded immense flexibility for many employees, but some people also experienced isolation and loneliness due to being disconnected from their co-workers. Now, many companies are requesting employees to return to the office. For people of color, returning to the office has brought up feelings of depression, anguish and reluctance.

BuzzFeed News surveyed 80 people of color in the United States who represented multiple industries, including education, finance, law and technology. Most of the respondents claimed working from home during the pandemic gave them freedom from racial microaggressions and relief from the constant pressure to assimilate into predominately white work cultures. Similarly, a study by Future Forum showed that only 3% of Black professionals were okay with going back into the office full time. At the same time, 21% of white people accepted going back to the office.

These disparate beliefs about returning to the office should not come as a surprise, given our country’s history of systemic racism and exclusion. Our workplaces are small microcosms of the larger society. In predominately white workplaces, people of color experience feeling like an outsider. They’re ignored in meetings and report that they often must sacrifice their authenticity or culture to conform to Eurocentric standards of professionalism. This constant masking of one’s authentic self can create feelings of dissatisfaction and burnout.

2020 was an especially emotionally and psychologically taxing year for people of color. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery brought national attention to the endemic of police violence and racism. The events also led to increased conversations in workplaces about race and racism. Working virtually allowed many people of color to avoid insensitive remarks or being the spokesperson on race relations.  

As a person of color and a career coach with more than 10 years of experience, I understand how difficult it is to return to an office after COVID-19 and manage daily racial microaggressions in predominately white spaces. If you’re returning to work soon and are scared or unsure about how to manage the harsh realities of in-person work as a person of color, check out these four tips on how to navigate being back in the office.

1. Create Healthy Boundaries

For many people, the lines between life and work became blurred when working from home. Burnout and exhaustion can be high for people of color, so setting healthy boundaries between your work and home life is critical. Find time for non-work-related activities and prioritize self-care. Be sure to take time off from work to increase your overall happiness and work satisfaction.

As a person of color, it’s also vital to communicate your priorities and values to your colleagues. Simply state that you don’t respond to emails or phone calls after 6 p.m. Or limit social time with colleagues at work to ensure you’re productive.

Learning to say no is difficult for women of color, especially as their work ethic is often questioned if they don’t assume a leadership role on a project or task. Take an honest assessment of your workload and talk with your supervisor about your capacity and how to delegate work to ensure you perform well. Creating healthy boundaries may also look like advocating for a hybrid work schedule that provides you the opportunity to work both at home and in the office.

2. Find an Employee Resource Group

Employee resource groups are especially valuable to people of color. These groups provide a safe space to seek respite from a racially hostile work culture and avenues for mentorship. A mentor can help give you the tools, resources and confidence to navigate predominately white workspaces and manage your career advancement. They may also help you find promotional opportunities, negotiate your salary and help build your reputation at work.

Resource groups also play an enormous role in advocating for workplace diversity and inclusion policies. Employee groups like Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) provide spaces for people of color to meet, socialize and offer cultural and personal forms of support. The group also offers opportunities for college students to learn about careers in technology, connect with current Black employees and receive financial assistance to attend a college or university. These college recruitment programs play a critical role in diversifying our workforce, especially in workplaces that have been traditionally white and male. Check with your human resources department to learn about available employee resource groups in your organization

3. Understand Discriminatory Policies

After the continuous murders of Black and Brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement, many companies released statements condemning racism and discrimination and vowing to commit to a culture of anti-racism. However, diversity in numbers is not a solution to racism. The top priority for companies and organizations should be the intentional practice of ensuring people of color feel a sense of belonging, have workplaces free of discrimination and are given opportunities to thrive and advance.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination against employees. Check with your Human Resource department to learn about the discrimination and harassment policies in your workplace. It is important that you’re well informed about these policies, know how to report incidents of discrimination and are aware of any other assistance available to you. Many organizations offer counseling and protection from retaliation if you must report a discrimination incident.

4. Use Your Voice and Find an Ally

Speaking up can be nerve-racking and even more consequential for people of color. Many people of color, especially women of color, may be hesitant to speak up out of fear of being perceived as unwelcoming or aggressive. If you have a trusting relationship with your direct supervisor, it’s important to speak up about incidents that are bothering you. Be sure to discuss strategies for how your supervisor can support you in the workplace.

As a person of color, it’s vital for you to find an ally who can serve as your confidante and someone who can empower you to utilize your voice in the workplace. Workplace allies are people who’re willing to advocate for another marginalized group or person to ensure they are valued, heard and included.

White allies play a unique role in ensuring people of color feel supported in the workplace. White allies speak up and advocate for people of color when they experience discrimination or mistreatment in the workplace. An ally could be a white person who restates what a person of color says in a meeting or a white person who confronts or calls out racism in front of other white colleagues. An ally can be in any role or position— and an ally does not always have to be a person in a higher leadership role or supervisor.

The pandemic has been exceptionally tough for all of us. Many of us are balancing multiple competing demands of home, life and work. However, for people of color, working from home has protected them in some ways from everyday experiences of racism in the workplace. It’s essential to understand why you’re feeling hesitant to return to work so you can adopt strategies to improve your overall wellbeing and experience in the workplace.

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Author Dr. Ciera Graham-Graves

Dr. Ciera Graham-Graves

Guest writer Dr. Ciera Graham-Graves has 12 years of experience as a higher education administrator. She enjoys writing on issues pertaining to the challenges impacting women and ethnic minorities in the workplace. She is a past career columnist for the Seattle Times and the Everett Herald, and a current editorial contributor to Career Contessa and Best Colleges. 

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