Return-to-the-office mandates are creating inequities for some workers

Return-to-the-office mandates are creating inequities for some workers
(Illustration by Luke Brooks for The Washington Post)

Workers say remote work provided new opportunities to thrive. Potential mandates are stirring concerns and fears.

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Mike Maurer never imagined being immunocompromised could cost him his job.

But the 75-year-old former luxury-car salesman in Annapolis, Md., said he believes that’s exactly what happened.

Maurer had worked at the same car dealership for nearly 14 years. The dealership furloughed its sales workers after the onset of the pandemic but invited them to continue in-person sales two days later. Maurer was allowed to make sales calls remotely after being advised to do so by his doctor. But he said after new management stepped in, he was fired. The reason he was given was low sales numbers, but he thinks his remote work accommodation played into the decision. As a result, he said he’s been left “high and dry.”

“In my industry, it’s so rare for someone to work at home,” he said. “Had there been no covid, I’d still be there leading the sales force.”

Employers across the United States are mandating employees return to the workplace after more than two years of letting them work from home during the pandemic. Workers like Maurer say return-to-work mandates may not only cause stress but potentially harm them. Some workers say remote work has allowed them to thrive, be efficient and have access to more job opportunities. But office mandates have reintroduced old problems to the future of work, exacerbating inequities related to health conditions, disabilities and discrimination, they say. And some companies have rolled out what workers say are inconsistent and inefficient policies.

Maurer said he hopes the future of the industry where he built a 39-year career will evolve to include more remote opportunities to protect people like him.

“I hope we can reach a good balance between being able to work remotely and still have some interaction,” he said.

Hybrid work for many is messy and exhausting

For workers who have disabilities, the flexibility to work remotely might be the determining factor in whether they can even be employed. That was the case with Beate, a 2017 college graduate in Chicago who suffers from chronic pain and exhaustion that developed from a viral infection. Beate, who agreed to speak on the condition that her last name not be used for fear that her condition could be exposed to her employer, has autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder that she said regularly make her feel overwhelmed, struggle with sensory overload and have difficulty focusing.

“That [remote work] door being open means you give everyone the same basic dignity,” Beate said. “I hope the world stays that open so I can have a career trajectory.”

Beate was devastated for two years, believing she might never be able to hold down a full-time job. But in late 2019, the 34-year-old landed a remote job as a marketing manager. She realized that not only could she have everything she dreamed about, but she could thrive in an environment that she could control. As more companies adopt the increasingly popular hybrid work model, she fears that down the line her company could convert her remote job to in-person or in the near-term it could ask other employees to return and leave her isolated.

“It’s a complete flip from a dark place to feeling like I’m a part of the world,” Beate said about being able to work from home. “I’m really terrified of it being taken away.” She fears that in-person, she may not be able to perform her job and could be treated differently for her disabilities.

For workers like Rackelle Wilkinson, a clinical supervisor in Pennsylvania who works for a large health insurer, working remotely has allowed her to focus solely on work, she said. As a Black woman, she said she’s faced regular distasteful jokes, uncomfortable conversations about race and politics, and judgment based on her natural hair and skin tone — all within the workplace.

“Remote work completely takes that out,” she said. “I can focus on my work, on my skill development. It’s just about my work … [not] what I’m wearing or how I did my hair.”

Pre-pandemic, Wilkinson worked for another health insurer as a community nurse part time in person. But after regularly dealing with a White male colleague who she said made inappropriate comments and getting nowhere with human resources, she quit.

After the pandemic hit, she picked up a remote contract job and quickly realized that was the way she wanted to work. She landed at her current employer in April 2021 and was promoted to her supervisory role about a year later — an accomplishment she credits to her ability to work remotely, keep her camera off and focus on the job. While she expects to continue working remote, she’s wary her company could someday mandate her to the office, at least part time.

“I think about people not feeling you measure up if you don’t look a particular way,” she said. “Do I really want to go through the exercise of being self-conscious before doing my work?”

For Angela Broadus, a Battle Creek, Mich.-based IT professional at a health care company, working remotely has provided her mental and physical safety. At a previous job, she and other contractors — the majority of whom were people of color like her — were required to work in-person every day, while full-time workers rotated in and out for safety. At another former job at a casino, where she tended to the machines, she said she was often “profiled” by casino guests and security even though she carried keys and wore an IT badge.

Now, as a fully remote employee for the first time in her 13-year career, Broadus said she’s “terrified” her employer might mandate her to an office. Since working remotely, she said she feels physically safe.

“The difference [now] is they cannot see me … I help you resolve your issues, and that’s the end of it.”

Is your return-to-office policy creating problems for workers? Tell us about it.

Worrying about physical danger at the office became a widespread concern after the onset of the pandemic. Some workers with high health risks tried to convince their employers that remote work was a viable option only to find themselves unemployed.

Trent, a former worker at a Texas public transportation agency who agreed to speak on the condition that his last name not be used, filed for an exception to work remotely from Virginia, where he worked during the height of the pandemic, because he suffers from asthma and autism. He said he received a letter from human resources saying he could work remotely, but only from Texas — a move he saw as unnecessary and worrisome given Texas’s high number of coronavirus cases.

“[The HR representative] basically was saying … ‘There’s nothing medically wrong with you keeping you from coming,’” Trent recalls. “And I said, ‘You’re not a doctor, and I resent you putting my health at risk.’ ”

He’s now unemployed, stacked with legal bills from lawyers he hired to help with the matter, he said.

What happens if you refuse to go back to the office?

Audrey J. Murrell, a University of Pittsburgh School of Business professor who studies diversity, inclusion, mentoring and leadership, said the pandemic didn’t create these big-picture problems but it further exposed and exacerbated them. Employers now have the opportunity to revise and update their policies to be more inclusive to all workers and their needs.

“Forcing people to come back to a pre-covid workplace is a missed opportunity to learn something,” she said. “Take a hard look at what should the future of work look like if you want to attract and retain talent.”

Workers argue that return-to-office policies also have the potential to spur inequities among the broader workforce if not thoughtfully constructed or uniformly applied. Workers point to some in-office policies they say favor some over others, creating what they deem as unnecessary hardships and higher risks for specific groups.

In one case, a multimedia conglomerate required anyone living within a certain radius of its California office return in-person three days a week. People who moved away could continue remote work, essentially making some feel they were “punished” for staying while others saved time and money working remotely. At a financial company in Connecticut, managers were given discretion on how often employees need to go to the office. As a result, some departments were more remote-work friendly than others, spurring the possibility for resentment or guilt for workers with different privileges.

Beate from Chicago said she hopes business leaders reflect on the last two years and the opportunities they may have unintentionally provided workers like herself. Her ask: Trust your workers enough to allow them to work in the way that suits them best. Don’t make them ask.

“Accommodate by default rather than … [asking employees to] lay yourself flat to enter a world built for different people,” she said. “I don’t want to be singled out.”

Tips for creating a more equitable workplace

Murrell, the professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Business, said as companies develop their plans for how, where and when their employees work, they should take the opportunity to consider how they can make the workplace more equitable. Here are some of her tips.

  • Get good data with regular employee pulse surveys and interviews to understand what people want and need as well as the obstacles they may face.
  • Reevaluate how leaders are being promoted and hired and determine whether they’re promoting equitable practices among their teams.
  • Make sure leaders have the resources and tools they need to develop an inclusive environment for their teams.
  • Remember flexibility and agility are key when developing work policies. One size does not fit all.
  • Prioritize psychological safety — meaning directly addressing issues such as microaggressions — as much as physical safety.
  • Invest in HR data analytics software to get a better understanding of work trends and adjust policies according to the data.
  • Ensure employees have access to proper software, internet speeds and other tech tools regardless of whether they’re in person or remote.
  • Consider allowing some projects and collaboration to happen on one platform at any time versus a scheduled time so workers have more flexibility.
  • Communicate via different channels to avoid favoring some employees over others. If information was shared on a video call, consider re-sharing via email or messaging apps.

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