"Barbados was great. It’s still quite, you know, colonial," said one of my senior colleagues as he recommended the Caribbean island as a holiday destination to a group of coworkers. I was shocked at his lack of awareness, brazenly using the word 'colonial' without acknowledging that it doesn't exactly evoke warm, positive feelings for everyone.
I could have stormed over to him, telling him why that word made me feel uncomfortable, or I could have run to HR to complain. But I did nothing. Instead, I simply ignored the conversation and focused on my looming deadline.
This incident occurred pre-pandemic and is one of the reasons why I dread returning to the office. COVID-19 created a huge shift in the way we work and last year saw most office workers switch to working from home. Aside from the benefits of having a routine, seeing the people I like and having access to an array of mouthwatering (if overpriced) lunch options, the office is something I would like to leave in the past.
Black women, like me, are often at a crossroads between wanting to take a stand against microaggressions at work and wanting to fade into the background to protect our peace. Being in the office, for me, meant feeling drained by 3pm, flattened by the weight of endless small talk and the constant pressure to be social, then the exhaustion I felt when I was judged for not wanting to be social.
A 2020 YouGov poll of over 2,000 office workers found that most (57%) of those who were working from home don't want to return to the office full-time, while only four in 10 (39%) say they don't want to work from home when the coronavirus crisis is over. Facebook, Reach PLC and Dropbox are among the companies which have decided to make working from home the default for most of their employees after COVID.
Now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing up, like me, some workers are reluctant to go back to normal. Twenty-three-year-old Amina is one of them.
Amina moved to Ipswich before the pandemic to work as a software engineer and was relieved when she was told she could start working from home. "The constant battle between trying to figure out how to fit in without compromising what makes you who you are was exhausting," she says. "Not only was I happy saving so much on travel but I also realised how much of a morning person I've always been and how much travelling into work disrupted that."
She continues: "I could run all my errands in the house before my 9am stand-up sessions with the team. I wasn't getting punished for taking a nap during my lunch break. And although there were days I was at my desk for longer, at least I didn't have the dreaded feeling of waiting for the next bus in a packed environment — and my bed was seconds away."
Amina adds that had it not been for the shift to working from home, she wouldn't have realised how much she was being exploited as the only Black woman on her team, which led to her deciding to put her wellbeing first and quitting her previous job.
London-based Ella, 23, previously worked in corporate events. She recently returned to the office but hasn't been enjoying it. "I feel like you have to make your conversations personal with colleagues, such as discussing relationships and holidays," she tells R29. "It feels toxic because I have boundaries and don’t really want to do things like this. One time in the office I was asked what my dating preferences were, which felt way too personal."
Ella also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which makes office culture even more daunting for her. "It means I process information much longer than the average person and struggle to make conversation with new people," she explains. "At home, I see that I focus better by being within my own space with my 'walls of inspiration'. I’m able to close my eyes and refocus on a task if need be. Being in my room and at my desk feels better to do work as I get to just be my full happy self, without pushing myself to make awkward conversation."
Thirty-year-old Jennifer is also neurodivergent (dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD) and has always felt pressure to explain the intersectionalities of her identity to her colleagues. Previously based in Belfast, working for a major telecommunications company as a devOps big data engineer, she was constantly reminded that she was different. "I always found myself teaching my colleagues about my struggles and the lessons they can take from it," she says. "At first, it felt like advocacy and making a difference but eventually, it became mentally exhausting," Jennifer explains. Even lunchtimes in the canteen became something she dreaded because she'd get stared at. "It was a combination of curiosity and uncertainty on how to communicate with me as a Black person," she adds. "I eventually stopped eating in the canteen on my own and would instead eat out, eat at my desk with headphones on or just find a room that wasn’t being used so I could avoid the uncomfortable attention."
She has now moved to London, working for a new company completely remotely, and feels safe, comfortable and able to bring her full self to work.
Tasha Bailey, an accredited psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, explains that Black women being torn between authenticity and assimilating is very common. "Cultural assimilation in the workplace is when someone has to adopt the dominant culture to resemble everyone else," she explains. "It can be an implicit or explicit process of erasing cultural differences and intersections as a way of centring whiteness." It can have a detrimental psychological impact too, leading to feelings of anxiety and imposter syndrome.
Tasha argues that on the whole, the 'end' of office culture is a good thing. "Working from home allows individuals to have space from the social context of work," she continues. "There might be less social obligations, less microaggressions and more capacity to be yourself. For many BIPOC cultures, work life and personal life are separate. And a level of protectiveness over their professional selves is often necessary due to the levels of institutionalised racism they have to battle."
To build a more inclusive culture for Black women, Tasha suggests workplaces look at their stats regarding not only diversity but retainment too. She also warns that workplaces should be open to receiving some difficult feedback, without ego or defences getting in the way.
For Black women navigating the workplace, she suggests reading Sophie Williams' Millennial Black and Anti-Racist Ally for advice and support. But ultimately, Tasha emphasises that the onus should be placed not on employees but on workplaces. "This is not a tick box exercise but something which requires constant reviews and relearning," she adds. "Stick by the objectives that you have set to make the office more inclusive, and keep working on them."
Ed note: This story has been amended to clarify that 57% of workers do not wish to return to the office full-time after coronavirus.