There are plenty of surprising statistics these days, from vaccination rates to breakthrough cases to the record number of job openings. But rarely do such numbers stop you in your tracks the way one statistic did earlier this year: only 3% of Black professionals want to return to the office.
The study that led to this staggeringly-low number, conducted by Slack Future Forum, noted that Black knowledge workers feel less of a sense of belonging at work. What that statistic really shows is the depth and breadth of microaggressions that occur in the workplace, and the psychological harm Black professionals experience. Which begs the question: If we all hadn’t been away from the office for more than a year, would this issue have come into the spotlight?
The unconscious bias may seem subtle to some workers but is distinct and concrete for Black professionals. Every time they walk into a meeting, town hall or “relaxing” happy hour they do so with a certain degree of hypervigilance. They’re constantly assessing a maze of threats, whether intentional or unintentional. This maze begins early on: they wonder whether they didn’t get an interview because their name sounded Black, or if they got the job because they were Black. Once in the job, they soon realize they’re paid less than their colleagues, and are passed over for promotions or professional development opportunities.
These workplace realities have a physical consequence called “weathering.” Coined years ago by Arline Geronimus, who is currently a professor at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, her theory of weathering originally centered on a study of women’s fertility. She noted that the health of Black women deteriorated earlier in adulthood because of repeated exposure to socioeconomic disadvantages. This finding is similar to decades of research showing that a sense of unfairness correlates to poor health outcomes across every point of life. In short, the feeling of being treated unfairly increases day-to-day cortisol levels, which reduces immune function. For organizations, it also reduces the quality of people’s thinking and performance.
This idea of weathering is applicable in other arenas beyond health. Many Black professionals come into the workplace knowing they’ll have to work twice as hard to get half as far. When the pandemic provided a break from the daily psychological toll of weathering — or at least a physical one by not being in the office — they shed a layer of stress. And they aren’t eager to take it back on.
We talk about the Great Resignation spurred by people realizing there was more to life than working in a state of discontent. For Black employees, escalating racial tension capped off by a pandemic have also led to a Great Realization: I don’t have to go back and feel the way I did before. As Stanford professor Brian Lowery explains: “Not having to deal with the day-to-day nonsense of feeling isolated or feeling different or having to manage how other people are responding to you was enlightening.”
Knowing this, leaders must work to understand how to cultivate a sense of inclusion to ensure they’re not damaging the bottom line. A recent study by Citigroup estimates that 20 years of discrimination against Black people in wages, education, housing, and investment have cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion in GDP. If the gaps were closed today, $5 trillion could be added to GDP over the next five years. Here’s how we can begin.
Address bias on a micro and macro level.
Commonplace slights, often called microaggressions, can be both intentional or unintentional and come from a range of biases. The challenge is, knowing that you have biases isn’t enough, because most of the time they occur well below conscious awareness. Many leaders go wrong by mandating bias-education programs; research shows this can actually make an organization more biased. What works are compelling, easy-to-digest, habit-building strategies that help people identify bias in just themselves and in each other in real time, and call them out in a non-threatening way. Just like other policies, such as moving from a hierarchical reporting structure to a flatter organization, companies must develop and deploy processes to reduce the chance of bias at the source. Our research shows that when this is done, more than 75% of employees take actions to mitigate bias every week.
Give Black employees space to “bounce back” with autonomy.
The study’s findings noted that working from home reduced the need for Black professionals to “code switch,” or what’s broadly known as “covering”— the constant downplaying of identity aspects that make people different from their peers — and provided space for them to “bounce back” from instances of microaggressions or discrimination. Working remotely provided literal space buffers that allowed Black employees to feel more in control of their feelings and outcomes. Indeed, Future Forum’s research showed that flexible working arrangements resulted in a 64% boost in Black professionals’ ability to manage stress, a 25% improvement in work-life balance and double the increase in the sense of belonging at work. Such data point to the power of space and autonomy, whether that means allowing professionals to create their work hours or providing opportunities for a mix of in-office and work-from-home scheduling.
Measure progress and hold people accountable.
To enact organizational change, it’s paramount that leaders institute a system of measurement and accountability. To hold people accountable, leaders can follow a model we call priorities, habits and systems (PHS). First, leaders must agree on top priorities and help employees see the purpose of the change; then they must determine new habits that will achieve the intended outcome; and finally they need to find ways to reinforce those desired changes throughout the entire workplace environment. When organizations use PHS, they’re able to then measure how frequently employees and managers perform a new, desired behavior, and, over time, how the frequent use of those behaviors add up on a systemic level.
So, how do we fix this? It’s going to take real change — in how we work, how we interact, and how companies build inclusive cultures. Turning the 3% statistic on its head starts with addressing bias on multiple levels, leaning into flexibility, and adopting and then measuring the success of new inclusive habits.