Leaders who favor in-person work say it’s better for inclusion. It’s not.

Commuters wearing masks leave a train station during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak
Commuters wearing masks leave a train station during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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As return-to-office dates loom closer—pending what we learn about the Omicron variant—so a moralistic argument in favor of return-to-office gets louder: That in-person work is better for inclusion.

People who work remotely are going to miss out on networking, which could affect their ability to be promoted and receive pay raises in the future—or so the argument goes.

But the inclusion argument is also deeply flawed. It assumes that both proximity bias (a phenomenon that” favors office workers who have regular, face-to-face contact with their colleagues”) and all the -isms (racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism, to name a few) that have created disadvantages in the past are somehow no longer applicable in a post-Covid world.

It subtly suggests that the only way to get to meaningful diversity is to go back to the way things were and pick up where we left off. The truth is, employees who were marginalized pre-Covid are not likely to fare so differently now.

The unexpected benefits of working remotely

This past year, it became clear that remote work can, and has, supported diversity and inclusion in unexpected ways. Some Black employees have said that working from home has improved their day-to-day experiences, and that it’s easier to focus without having to worry about casual racism that torpedoes their mental wellbeing and productivity.

People with physical disabilities are finally able to access meetings and communicate with others without having to navigate a physical world that is not designed for them. And while they may miss the office as an escape, working parents and others with caregiving responsibilities also say it’s easier to manage their multiple roles without the hassles of commuting or conforming to office schedules.

What’s critical now is to hang on to these improvements and build on them. The “old way” of working, which demands longer commutes, places undue burden on those people least able to afford living in central locations, and ignores the realities of life for many, is a key part of the problem for the very people companies claim they want to support.

Even if staff are given the option to work from home, but workplaces otherwise go back to normal, there is a danger that the employees who once dominated in-person company life and soak up all the benefits of being seen and heard by those in power, will do so again.

The inclusion argument could backfire

Anna Oakes, head of people at Quartz says that by bringing everyone back to the office, companies could inadvertently force the worst of both worlds on all employees. That’s because a chunk of the workforce will seek exemptions for health or other reasons, she says, and they will have the legal right to work from home. On a single team, there will likely be at least one person who is now excluded from the office environment, and best practices says that those in the office should now operate as if they’re also working remotely. Instead of meeting in one room, for example, everyone will join a video call from their individual laptops to create a level playing field.

“Where employers get jammed up is by forcing people to come back in and saying that it’s so that you can feel like you belong, or that we have more inclusion, when actually the opposite of that happens,” says Oakes, “because we’re creating more division, we’re creating more resentment, we’re creating more exclusion.”

Reverting to pre-Covid habits could backfire in other ways, too. A recent study by a trio of economists in the US and Mexico found people of color and highly educated women with young children are most eager to normalize working from home at least part of the week. “A ban on working from home risks a rush to the exit by these employees,” the study authors explain in Harvard Business Review. “That would exacerbate an already pressing problem in many organizations that struggle to hire and retain talented women and minority managers.”

Don’t woke-wash the case for working from the office

Corporate policies—say, about how often meetings take place or who sits where in the office—have a role to play in tearing down structural barriers to equality, but they’re not a panacea.

Meanwhile, asking people who largely say they don’t want to go back to the office to come back anyway, for their own sake, or implying that we’re more likely to be more empathetic humans if we interact in the same room puts the burden on the wrong people.

Employees who are trans, for instance, shouldn’t need to feel the pressure to go back to an inhospitable environment so that others can experience spiritual growth. It ought not be the duty of LGBTQ employees to move to cities or regions where they don’t feel welcome so they can show up at work daily in support of a company’s DEI efforts. If a company wants to support diverse neurotypes in the workplace, start by allowing people who are neuroatypical to choose where and how they work.

Many people miss socializing in the office or having greater separation between their home and professional realms, which might be reason enough to return on one’s own terms. And it’s true there may be sound justifications for top-down return-to-office orders, too, though many are likely just reflections of nostalgia for a fictional past, or a lack of imagination, a fear of change, or unconscious attempts to hang onto the trappings of power.

Still, if CEOs insist that staff get back to office spaces as often as possible because it’s their personal conviction that spending the day mostly Slacking, emailing, and Zooming with people online produces inferior work, that is their prerogative. But dragging inclusion into the debate is disingenuous.