The Return-to-Office Race Gap

A new survey shows Black men are far less eager to return to the workplace full-time than their White counterparts. Why employees of color still lack a “sense of belonging” in most offices.

After more than a year of showing how productive they are at home, not too many people are excited to be back in the office day in and day out.

But in the latest sign that corporate diversity movements still have a long way to go, only 16% of Black men said they were eager to go back to their or their client’s office full-time, according to a new survey. That’s a little over half the 30% of White men who said they were looking forward to going back in full-time. Not surprisingly, just 47% of Black men say that their sense of belonging while working remotely is slightly or much better than in-person. The survey, conducted by the research consortium Future Forum, included more than 5,000 US respondents and approximately 1,000 respondents each from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

The gap isn’t surprising, say experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. While at work, employees of color have had to endure a steady stream of “microaggressions,” such as being left off important email threads, not being asked for their opinions during meetings, being questioned about their hairstyles or clothing, and not being invited to happy hours or other unofficial work get-togethers. Nearly 60% of Black professionals say they have experienced racial prejudice at work, according to a study by Coqual, a think tank researches diversity-related workplace issues.

The pandemic has shown that many employees of color can do their work well while not only avoiding slights big and small but also doing that work while being more of their authentic selves. Thus, many prefer to work from home. “The chickens have come home to roost,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Black women aren’t excited to be back at the office full-time either. About 22% of Black women say they want to always be back at the office, about the same percentage of White women. Some experts say the lack of a gap between the two groups could be because of their shared sense of caregiving.

This return-to-office race gap may not be top of mind for many leaders since they’re having plenty of problems reopening offices safely in the first place. With the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus sending new COVID case numbers surging, leaders may be more preoccupied with getting employees vaccinated or ensuring that their workplaces allow for social distancing. But the results show that a one-size-fits-all approach to office reopenings may be flawed, says Ayana Parsons, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Consumer practice. “Blanket policies won’t work,” she says.

At the same time, the data could portend a major problem for attracting and retaining Black talent going forward. Since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, organizations around the world have promised to create more inclusive environments for Black, Latinx, and other employees of color. “We’ve all heard it before. I think people expect far more than promises,” says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer. Combine that with a very competitive job market, and Black employees may seek other employers who have created more inclusive environments, offer hybrid work schedules, or both. Experts recommend that leaders reach out to their employees of color to understand their points of view, then identify the root causes of the problems. That will take time. “If you really want people to come back to the office, there is no quick fix,” Saunders says.