As omicron cases rapidly fall and pandemic panic dissipates, organizations and companies of all kinds are solidifying when and how their employees will return to the office. Companies like Microsoft, Expedia, and American Express have already set dates. However, a new Harris Poll survey of 2,033 U.S. adults shows women and Black knowledge workers are happier working from home. Just over half (52%) of Black workers and (50%) of women say working from home is better than working in the office when it comes to advancing in their careers, compared with (42%) of men.

The shift to remote work managed to widen the talent marketplace. People had the opportunity to expand their careers without leaving their homes or community. An analysis of the LinkedIn Economic Graph shows women, Gen Z, and those without a graduate degree as the groups most likely to apply for remote positions. Return-to-the-workplace policies have the potential to undo the diversity, equity, and inclusion cultures that emerged during the pandemic. To keep employees engaged and productive, here are a few things to consider about returning to the office.

Survey employee concerns and ideas: 

After two years of working from home, Black employees feel more empowered than they did at the office. In a survey by the think tank Slack and their Future Forum consortium, Black workers reported a 50% increase in their sense of workplace belonging and a 64% increase in their ability to manage stress while working from home. Employees have concerns that go beyond their health within their workplace. When asked about their anxieties over returning to offices, (47%) of women of color say they worry about having to dress for work, compared with (31%) of men. Many of the microaggressions women of color face happen in person.

Leaders can address concerns like these by exploring the challenges, needs, desires, and ideas of their employees when developing return-to-the-office policies. For example, Hattaway Communications conducted internal surveys and interviews to help develop our approach to in-person work.

Test different working models: 

Returning to the office doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all scenario. Working models range from fully in-person to hybrid to fully remote situations. While many executives, including leaders at Netflix and J.P. Morgan, say that company culture thrives when people are in the office, a lot of workers have differing opinions. Ninety-seven percent of Black respondents in the U.S. say they prefer a fully remote or hybrid workplace. In a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, about 63% of 20,750 respondents say they value working from home for three days a week as much as a raise. 

Flexible or hybrid approaches in the early stages of returning to the workplace can help alleviate stress. At Hattaway, we have a hybrid model that considers which work is best done independently/remotely versus which is best done collectively/in person. We then match our schedules accordingly.

Level the playing field:

A hybrid workplace offers great flexibility, but there might still be an emphasis placed on being in the office—even if it isn’t directly related to productivity. This has the potential to create inequities among those who prefer to work from home compared to those who want to go into the office. Executives are nearly three times as likely as other employees to want to work in person. This has prompted sociologists to fear that hybrid workplaces will be two-tiered, with leadership and white-male employees interacting at the office and teleworking women and people of color being left out. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the virtual work environment has been equalizing. People who wouldn’t usually speak up in meetings have benefited from the chat function on Zoom. My personal favorite is the hand-raised icon that alerts the host when a participant has a question or comment, yet it doesn’t interrupt anyone who is speaking. 

Organizations need to adopt a deliberate approach to ensuring anyone who wants to be heard is heard. And they need to keep remote employees in the loop. For example, Hattaway incorporates this strategy by calling on everyone to ensure that they have a chance to speak. Another tactic is to divide up meeting agendas and give people deliberate roles so that everyone can participate.

Be sure to show up: 

Employers should keep in mind that the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities. Sometimes, just feeling heard can make all of the difference. Emotional and intellectual check-ins can show that the company cares about the well-being of its employees and acknowledges the hardships they may be facing outside of work.