Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2023
As LeRon Barton weighed his options, he realized what he had to do.
If he took a pay cut of $5,000, he could have a fully remote tech job that would let him roam the country and give him the flexibility he craved. Or he could keep his salary and stay at his current job — a network engineer position based at a San Francisco hospital that required occasional site visits and kept him tethered to the region.
Patients at the hospital sometimes gave him funny looks when he came to check their room’s Wi-Fi, recalled Barton, who is Black, and staff members questioned his competence. Working remotely during the pandemic showed him a whole different lifestyle: no commute, more time with his family and a break from the onslaught of microaggressions and other racist behavior he’d had to endure.
Barton chose the pay cut.
“You’re totally out of the rigamarole,” said Barton, who is now a writer and technical project manager at a Southern California tech company. “And just the quality of life has improved drastically.”
It’s a sentiment expressed by many Black workers and other people of color who found that remote work lessened the racism they faced on the job.
But it forces workers to make a difficult choice — prioritize your mental health or endure for the sake of your career. Remote job opportunities are shrinking as more companies require that workers come back to the office. And even in hybrid workplaces, remote employees can be at a disadvantage for career advancement since managers sometimes forget about them or assume they are less productive than their in-person peers, a concept called proximity bias.
“Jobs are built on social capital. We could miss out on those happy hour opportunities,” Barton said. But he’s willing to sacrifice the in-office networking. “Honestly,” he said, “I would trade that in for my peace of mind.”
Throughout the pandemic, survey after survey showed what some workers of color have known for years: Workplace politics and discrimination can make the office an undesirable place to be.
In 2021, just 3% of Black white-collar “knowledge workers” wanted to return to full-time in-office work, compared with 21% of white ones, according to research from Future Forum, a project backed by instant messaging firm Slack. The research found that hybrid or remote work arrangements increased Black workers’ feelings of belonging at work and boosted their ability to manage stress.
Part of the push for remote work can be explained by the preferences of millennial and younger workers, who want the freedom to choose where they do their jobs, said LaTonya Wilkins, founder and chief executive of Change Coaches, a leadership development firm focused on workplace culture.
But how supervisors evaluate workers is also a factor.
Career coach Jermaine L. Murray said many of his clients, relatives and friends have expressed their reluctance to return to the office. Clients of all races have told him they prefer remote work, but his Black clients have more frequently emphasized that continuing to work from home allowed them to avoid office politics.
“It almost felt like the distance allowed for a more objective environment,” said Murray, founder of JupiterHR, which provides career development services.
With remote work, the data confirm whether workers are getting their jobs done, and there’s less room for co-workers to take undeserved credit since there are fewer opportunities to socialize on the job, he said. Clients whose companies are switching to hybrid work are looking for other jobs, Murray said. And because of the sluggish economy and cooling labor market, he said, they’re “quiet quitting” their current positions rather than leaving immediately.
Opportunities for remote-only jobs, however, are starting to shrink.
In April, about 11% of U.S. job postings on LinkedIn were for remote work, down from a peak of nearly 21% in March 2022, according to a May report from LinkedIn. Such jobs were in high demand: Nearly half of job applications via the website in April were for fully remote positions, and only one-third were for jobs without remote or hybrid options.
“Professionals that have the opportunity to be in these remote environments and not experience microaggressions at work or not do as much code-switching or all of those things have now said, ‘Oh, that was great for my mental health’ or, ‘It helped me be a little more authentic at work,’” said Andrew McCaskill, a career expert with LinkedIn. “And a lot of employees and workers just don’t want to give that up.”
Eliminating remote options can also hurt companies’ ability to recruit a diverse workforce. With remote positions, companies can hire people living in geographic areas that are more diverse than the communities around their headquarters.
Professor Joan C. Williams and her collaborators have built a database of more than 18,000 people as they research the intersection of racial and gender bias in white-collar professions. In almost every dataset she’s seen, women of color report the most bias and the least workplace fairness, she said.
Particularly telling is a survey question that asks respondents whether they have access to career-enhancing work. Nearly 90% of white men say yes; for women of color, that percentage sinks as low as 50%.