Returning to the office is costing you untapped talent

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Full-time remote work can make a positive impact on everyone, especially groups of folks who are often untapped talent from historically marginalized communities. And I was never more thankful to already be part of a remote organization than when COVID hit in the spring of 2020. Many companies scrambled to accommodate a remote workforce on top of everything else they were facing. Test Double was not exempt from many of the issues caused by COVID: financial uncertainty, employee stress and burnout, instability around client forecasting, etc. Having to figure out how to change our employees’ work environment and communication practices was—thankfully—not one of those challenges.

Once again, we’re being spared from another source of extreme stress—returning to the office.

After two years at home, many organizations plan to send workers back to the office full-time or introduce a hybrid model wherein workers either come to the office 2-3 days a week or only a portion of workers stay at home. Just the other day Elon Musk told all Tesla employees to come back to the office—and he didn’t say it very nicely. Other companies are introducing hybrid models. Apple employees currently work 2 days in the office, with a planned increase to 3.

On the surface this makes sense. As a remote organization, Test Double is constantly revisiting employee connectivity and providing new ways for our folks to spend time together and with leadership in order to build relationships and alignment across the company. Office spaces have the advantage of instant proximity, which can allow for this to occur more organically. But we also have over 10 years as a remote company showing that you can collaborate and build relationships while fully remote. You have to be more intentional about creating time and space—and in-person retreats when there’s not a pandemic do make it easier to build relationships.

As an HR representative, let me tell you this whole back to office situation is a nightmare. As in the case of Tesla, HR isn’t making the rules, but we have to be the enforcers. HR is now the default COVID taskforce and “get ‘em back to the office or else” personnel. HR handling employee COVID policy questions, concerns, complaints, and COVID contract tracing. Fun. To add insult to injury, we have to do all this while simultaneously convincing the same employees to come back to the office.

Have I mentioned how much I love working remotely?

Okay, but there’s more to this whole full-time or hybrid issue than folks being upended from formed habits and routine once again. There’s also the very real risk of making work less safe vs. inclusive environments where everyone can thrive. My personal belief, and Test Double’s, is that employees know best how to curate that environment for their own individual needs. Here are some reasons why:

  • At home, folks with disabilities are in an environment where their needs are met, avoiding transportation systems, office spaces, and work rituals designed by non-disabled people for non-disabled people. And do I need to mention how much safer immunocompromised folks are working from home? Gotcha! I just did.

  • Many public bathrooms are not accessible and/or can present embarrassing situations for folks with disabilities. They may be judged for taking too long or going too much.

  • Most public bathrooms are binary. This presents discomfort and even danger for folks who are not cisgender. Choosing the “wrong” bathroom can lead to uneasy glares, bullying, and other forms of violence, just for having to relieve themselves, something every human has to do!

  • Neurodiverse people often thrive when using their own work equipment in their own spaces. Some folks perform better with chat, email, and other text-based communications. In the office, sporadic in-person communication is expected. Folks who aren’t comfortable with that are immediately labeled “not team players,” which isn’t true and isn’t fair.

  • Working remotely can also provide a reprieve from dealing with racism and sexism at work. When I worked in offices at previous jobs, subtle acts of exclusion—“microaggressions,” which aren’t micro at all—were common issues brought to HR. Using slurs and stereotypes in jokes, asking inappropriate questions, and tokenizing are more prevalent when human interaction is nearly constant and overhearing conversations happens, even when you wish you didn’t.

Even if folks don’t fall into the aforementioned categories, everyone wins. They save money on transportation, have greater control of their schedules, receive more autonomy, and get more time back without long commutes. This also saves the company money on leases, electricity, furniture, etc. And HR no longer has to become the COVID police or continuously come up with new ways to bribe folks to come back to the office.

As wonderful as remote work can be for everyone, including folks from historically marginalized communities, it won’t solve all of your people issues. And it certainly won’t solve equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). But being remote, as part of broader EDI work on other systems and practices, can enable you to reach untapped talent based on a more supportive environment. These efforts can create a more psychologically safe space, one folks are excited to be a part of—while working in the location of their choice.