What the pandemic taught us about racism at work and how to handle going back to the office

Correction: This video and story included the incorrect publishing period for the Future Forum survey. It was published in January 2021. The text has been updated. We regret the error.

Office culture can be as much a consideration as COVID-19 concerns for employees returning to work in person after years of working from home.

That can be especially true for employees of color and the ways in which they experience racism at work. Several studies have focused on the racism Black people specifically face at the office. Since the pandemic began, 42 percent of Black respondents in a survey from Project Include about remote work in the tech sector said they’d experienced an increase in race-based hostility at work.

In addition, a study by Future Forum in January 2021 found that only 3 percent of Black employees in white collar jobs wanted to return to the office. That’s compared to 21 percent of white employees.

Digital correspondent Nicole Ellis spoke with Y-Vonne Hutchinson, the CEO and founder of Ready Set, a workplace inclusivity consulting firm, about what kind of workplaces employees are returning to if their company is beginning to consider in-person or hybrid work. The author of “How to Talk to Your Boss About Race” also shared practical advice about how to start conversations about race at work and how to evaluate change in the workplace environment.

“Institutions that on their face appear neutral, like a workplace, can themselves be inherently racist,” Hutchinson said.

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Hutchinson said working from home can help Black people avoid dealing with microaggressions in the office, as well as blatant racism. She said research shows Black people — Black women in particular — face more questions about their performance than their peers.

“These conversations are important to have because we can’t leave our identities at the door. I can’t choose to go to work and not be Black,” she said. “I can’t choose to go to work and not be a Black woman and see impediments to promotions or evaluations of my performance, white institutional bias and prevent people from touching my hair. I can’t do all of that. If I could, I would have done it years ago and we might not be having this conversation.”

While working from home gives Black employees a break from what can feel like a hostile workplace, Hutchinson said that doesn’t mean the systemic racism stops once employees stop coming into the office.

“Working remotely is not a panacea,” she said. “So I think there are some aspects of remote work that make it easier to harass someone. Not all of your interactions are visible.”

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Hutchinson made a distinct difference about the idea of “calling in” a colleague or boss versus “calling out.”

“If you want to build a relationship with someone, shame is not the way or the place you want to start, right? And so I recommend calling in,” she said. “You can share a story of how you may have done something that had a negative impact on someone else and how you grow. You can offer to support this person and give this person resources.”

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Hutchinson said her personal experience, as she writes in her book, has shown there are times when it’s not worth staying in a workplace that is racist even if the goal is to work through and fix the problems.

“I’ve worked in quite a few toxic environments and every time I tried to tough it out, it never really worked out in my favor,” she said. “I want people to not sacrifice their careers and harm themselves in pursuit of the idea of being respected for their basic humanity at work. Because a lot of times what happens is that people who have these conversations are pushed out of an organization and, take it from me, you want to leave an organization on your own terms.”

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But, she said, there are times when talking to a boss about race is essential to the wellbeing not only of workers but of the institution as a whole. And she said it’s not just Black people who need to have that conversation, but every worker.

“I talk a lot in my book about the risk of backlash and retaliation,” Hutchinson said. “And I absolutely think that if you’re having this conversation, you have to be prepared for that too. It’s an unfortunate reality that a lot of times when we do this work, it hits a nerve, and in the worst cases, people will push back. And, we as advocates, need to be prepared for that.”