Simone Francis is employed by a company that helps businesses navigate government red tape. For years, she sat at an office desk with pictures of her two children, fetching calls or emails from prospective clients. In between, she’d make small talk with her colleagues. Sometimes, as she wound down the day’s final tasks, she’d put on earphones and plug into a podcast.
One morning in early April last year, she received an email from her boss. Work from home until the pandemic is over, it said.
Francis, who is 38, Black and a single mother, contemplated the big change this would mean. How would she juggle work and managing two teenagers at home? Then she felt a wave of relief. Now she didn’t have to go to her office and deal with “the bullshit” anymore.
At work, Francis — whose name has been changed for anonymity at her request — felt she was always under the spotlight. And for all the wrong reasons.
When she would come back from lunch, not late, her manager would comment, “Oh, seems like you’ve been gone from your desk for a while.” No one else seemed to get that treatment.
Once, when she filled in for a supervisor at a meeting, someone told her manager that she wasn’t open and friendly. Why? Because she had her arms crossed at one point in the discussion.
A few months before the lockdown, she represented the BC General Employees’ Union as part of a collective bargaining process. In meetings, where Francis was the only person of colour, a member of management would single her out, cut her off, never call her by her name, avoid eye contact and even refrain from shaking her hand.
“There was no personal connection at all. It was never about the quality of my work or my performance,” Francis told The Tyee. “I felt alone. So alone.”
The strain of ‘code-switching’
Now that rising vaccinations have companies making plans to pull employees back into the office after months of working at home, research shows many workers are unhappy with the prospect. People increasingly want the choice to work from home for reasons ranging from convenience to saving money on commuting and rent in more expensive parts of the city.
There are further reasons for people from BIPOC communities, however. Paradoxically, many say spending time away from the office gives them a stronger sense of acceptance within their work culture.
In May, a research consortium called Future Forum, led by the online workplace platform maker Slack, asked 10,447 employees in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K. about their work experience during the pandemic. It found that people of colour felt a much stronger sense of belonging than their white counterparts when they worked from home.
It’s one of the reasons 80 per cent of Black, 78 per cent of Hispanic and 77 per cent of Asian respondents said they want “a flexible working experience, either through a hybrid or remote-only model.” The percentages for white people were lower.
Sheela Subramanian, executive director of Future Forum, said that the strain on people of colour who don’t feel like they belong at the office produces a coping strategy called “code-switching” — itself stressful. Code-switching is when people change their behaviour, style of speech and appearance while suppressing their self-expression to fit in. It’s the price they believe they must pay to receive employment opportunities, fair treatment or quality service.
Every employee has to adjust to the culture of their workplace and construct their own “appropriate” identity on the job, write legal scholars Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado in their book Working Identity. But that process can be especially difficult for employees from marginalized communities who may feel pressure to defy cultural stereotypes and work harder for others to see them as individuals.
For instance, Black men might feel the need to put in extra hours in order to counter the stereotype of a poor work ethic, write Gulati and Carbado. Trying to wear this “cloak of conformity” can lead to burnout, research shows.
Meg Bond is a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Women and Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who’s published dozens of academic works explaining how to improve the workplace. She told The Tyee that code-switching is made harder by the fact that people from BIPOC groups face different sets of social norms when they are at work and when they’re with their family and friends. “And that can be extremely stressful. You suddenly have to almost play-act at work.”
Bond says the kinds of micro-aggressions Simone Francis faced at work, when coupled with the strain of code-switching, could harm one’s mental health in ways felt beyond business hours. A person’s well-being is inextricably linked to the quality of their work life, research shows.
Francis says she did suffer such effects. Trying to fend off and absorb the frequent criticisms from her boss chipped away at her confidence and even her sense of reality. And her co-workers weren’t a source of support. “Since I didn't have any other people of colour or Black women I worked with directly in that capacity, I didn't really have anybody else to understand what I was going through,” she said.
Eventually she stopped hanging out with colleagues during or after work time. One day, she decided to remove all the pictures of her children from her desk. She felt the need to clear away every trace of her home, her family — the only place where she belonged — from her office. “After so many of these incidents, I just felt that I didn’t want these people to know anything about me and my life, what I enjoy and my children. I just wanted to be disconnected. I just wanted to blend in.”
Her supervisor’s continuing critiques convinced Francis she was a victim of racism, with no recourse. She found her focus waning and she suffered several meltdowns. She couldn’t sleep at night. She felt her connection with her kids slipping away. She took sick leave to revive her spirit — a break that was just about to end when she and fellow employees got the notice that the pandemic meant they’d work from home.
Francis’s feelings of helplessness against racist behaviour by a superior isn’t uncommon, according to psychology professor Bond. “It’s hard for this kind of stuff to meet the threshold wherein the perpetrator gets punished unless you’ve got a fairly enlightened workplace that understands that micro-aggressions and these daily kinds of slights are extraordinarily powerful in terms of how they eat away at you.”
When Francis found out the pandemic forced her to work at home, it meant she could hang on to her mental health as well as her paycheque, she said.
“I don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass anymore. I don’t have to pretend to like people who I don’t, who are rude. Because that’s kind of the appearance that we have to keep up in the workplace. If I’m not smiling and happy, as a Black woman, I look unfriendly and angry.”
If working from home can, as Future Forum’s Subramanian says, “kind of reduce the cost of code-switching,” it doesn’t necessarily challenge the workplace norms that trigger the behaviour in the first place.
What Slack and many other tech companies extol as work-from-home “flexibility” can allow companies to ignore how the dominant culture makes some uncomfortable, and those expectations can carry over to Zoom sessions and Slack chats.
That was Francis’s experience, she said. Once, when she was 15 minutes late to an online meeting, she was scolded by her boss, after which he handed her a note that said she might get further “disciplined for her actions.” When she had to take her kids to the dentist, which was a seven-minute drive away from her house, her boss told her that such chores “shouldn’t be done at work-time.” And whenever she left her apartment, Francis was required to punch out until the time she got home and started working again.
Such restrictions made Francis feel like she was being micromanaged, which heightened the stress of dealing with fear of COVID-19 while taking care of two teens, one with learning challenges.
The promise of “flexibility” proved to be a mirage, she said. “I think most of us have proven that we’re capable of doing this. So it would be nice if we could be respected that way and not have someone check in with us every two minutes. It makes me feel I’m not trusted.”
As some companies contemplate offering workers a choice of coming back to work or staying home, research is pinpointing another potential downside: the creation of “second-class” employees.
If people from majority groups feel most comfortable in the office setting and therefore return there in greater numbers, they might gain opportunities through their interactions, ranging from casual exchanges of information to decisions arrived at through in-person meetings that home-based co-workers miss out on. Over time that could widen rifts within the workforce.
Even if leaders work hard to keep everyone in the loop, that might not be enough, stressed Bond. Building a work culture of inclusion and respect requires a deeper effort — one that isn’t easy because culture is “something you can feel but can’t put a finger on.”
Making that transformation starts with leaders recognizing the indignities that people from marginalized communities face and acknowledging the fact to all employees, said Bond. The company should then actively seek feedback from workers with iron-clad assurances no one will suffer for honestly sharing their lived experiences. The result should include training programs for managers and new measures for evaluating supervisors.
“It has to permeate all aspects of the organization. It shouldn’t just be left for the HR department to handle,” said Bond. “It’s an ongoing process of continually enabling the leaders in one’s organization to self-evaluate and self-correct, and be held accountable for treating workers in an equitable way.”
One strategy Bond recommends is “bystander training,” which involves making every employee feel responsible for reporting problematic instances whenever they take place. This way of improving workplace culture involves all employees in a collective effort.
However, holding someone accountable is different from shaming them, Bond said. Shaming someone refers to labelling people and their character for what they said or did. While accountability, according to Bond, is holding someone responsible for their actions and attempting to correct their behaviour.
“When you call someone a racist, the definition has a totalizing effect on them. But on the other hand, if you tell them that what they said or did was racist and that they need to change how they behaved, then you’re holding them accountable,” Bond said. “You also see shaming in informal ways such as people talking behind the person’s back or scolding them publicly.”
As Simone Francis’s employer weighs when and how to bring people back into the office, one person won’t be returning to her desk. Francis has decided to quit. This fall she will begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with an eye towards shaping policy in her next career.
“I feel it’s really important to better educate myself,” she has concluded. “Because that may be the only way that I can get some respect from my employer.”