For the last 18 months, remote work has become the norm for most corporate employees thanks to the COVID-19 global pandemic. But with the advent of vaccines, talk of returning to the office has been bubbling up in company emails, Zoom calls and Slack messages.
For some in the U.S., that return — whether it be hybrid or full time — was slated for this week, on the heels of a long Labor Day weekend. However, with a rise in COVID-19 infection cases and variants, plans are once again in flux. The uncertainty has left at least one tech startup marketing strategist feeling anxious after finding remote work to be more productive and, as a woman of color, less daunting than in-office work. Digiday caught up with the strategist to talk about anxiety around returning to the office, working as a woman of color and what makes company culture.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How are you feeling about returning to an in-person office environment?
The return to work for some of our counterparts has been really exciting because they love to be in that space together. But the return to work for a lot of people like me is very dreadful. I started this job thinking it would be fully remote and then heard from leadership that we would go back, which hasn’t happened yet. My biggest thing is that I’m not comfortable. The office space is open now and people can go if they want to. A lot of people who are going happen to be some of the white people. We have an employee resource group that is dedicated to African Americans and Black people who work there. A lot of them were talking about how they just weren’t comfortable.
Why do you think there’s discomfort around going back to the office for you and the group?
[It’s] being around people with the delta variant. Also, we’re a lot more productive at home. We don’t have to deal with the microaggressions. We don’t have to deal with smiling, happy and in somebody’s face all the time. I’m more of an introvert. God forbid I show a face where I’m not happy, then it’s ‘You’re not a team player’ when really I’m just tired.
Also, I live far from where my office is [located]. So [to] consider driving or taking public transportation to that space… Having to get up in the morning, sometimes around 5 or 6 a.m., to get there by 9, work until 6, get back home by 9 and do it all over again?
Tell us more about what remote work means for women of color, especially Black women.
People don’t realize how much it takes to be presentable. I have to go back to the office so now I’m thinking about what my hair looks like. Is this work appropriate? All of that comes back that you didn’t even have to deal with for a while.
What do you think leadership needs to understand about returning to the office?
When people say, “I don’t feel comfortable,” it’s not, “Well, how can we make you comfortable when you come in?” It’s, “How can we make you uncomfortable, period.” We’ve already shown you that we can work from home. There’s been proof for the last 18-19 months. There shouldn’t be a “but.” They should approach it as if anybody wants to go to the office, you can, and people should choose that.
Companies are so consumed with getting back and returning back to normal that they’re not thinking about people. Y’all talk about research but you’re only talking about research as much as it contributes to how much money you’re going to make. You’re not thinking about how in the middle of New York City, Chicago, Miami or wherever your office space is, that the towns around it are being affected. The employees are being affected. Their families are being affected and you’re just like, trying to go back to normal.
So what happens if they require everyone to go back to in-person work?
I’ve just gotten to a space where I’m just not willing. That took a certain level of confidence in my work and confidence in myself after dealing with imposter syndrome. I have gotten to the space where I value my time, my family and being around so much more while still being able to work, and I am unwilling to let that go anymore. If they say we’re coming back, fully, I’m going to say, “Well, thank you for your time.” I know that not a lot of people have that luxury, and I even take that into account. But I know that for a fact it’s just not worth it for me.