Reports of the impending death of the “office building” due to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the U.S workforce continue to go unchallenged. However, offices have enhanced financial and professional opportunities for African-Americans by providing the rare shared space where people of all races are not only required to interact with one another, but are required to interact by law in a civil and respectful manner.
Before we wave goodbye forever to life in the cities and retreat to our home offices, it is time to take stock of the enormous societal benefits that offices have contributed, and all that would be lost if we all continued to work from home, in a post-COVID-19 world.
Here is a thought experiment for you: Think about the times you have interacted with people outside of your racial group. How many of those people did you meet at a place that was not work or school? Furthermore, think of the pre-COVID-19 world when you used to go to a restaurant at lunchtime and you saw a table of eight to 10 people of various races and ages. Was this typically a work related gathering? How often does this happen if it’s not occurring through workplace relationships? Do these diverse gatherings occur as often on weekends as opposed to during the week?
If we make 100% remote work environments part of the work environment forever, it is inevitable that we will become a much more racially divided and classist society, which will increase rather than decrease social unrest and economic disparities in the U.S.
Just this month in places around America, Black employees have shared their stories of encountering societal injustice and many of those stories have deeply impacted the sentiments of their white colleagues. How would any of this have been possible in a world with only video interaction between colleagues who have never eaten together or been in a room together in good times and bad times?
If we give up the office building, the power of the haves will grow and the very little power of the have-nots will be decimated. The massive social unrest in the first half of 2020 alone is only likely to be exacerbated when you have more isolation and less interaction caused by remote work-life cultures that are quickly adopted by one group of people but completely ignores the everyday working realities of marginalized communities.
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted African Americans with the highest death rate of all racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, African-Americans still face structural barriers in securing quality employment and they experience disparities in jobs, wages, benefits and all measures of economic well-being. Therefore, it compels one to ask, “While working remotely, are employees being judged based on the quality of their surroundings, their homes, if they have roommates and what they can afford based on their income?” While some people may have a lovely home office with a den and a fireplace, others may not have 10 square feet to work independently and their work production needlessly suffers.
There is also a significant digital divide that exists, despite our reliance on remote work. Approximately one in five adults in the U.S have no access to broadband services in their homes and do not own a laptop or desktop computer. In fact, these adults are “smartphone-only” internet users. The digital divide is a reality, particularly among low-income and minority populations.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor of Statistics, approximately 20% of African Americans can work from home. A May 2020 Federal Reserve survey, found that 62% of workers with a college degree said they worked from home in March, whereas just 20% of those with only a high-school diploma did. Even fewer Hispanics or Latinx populations have the ability to work from home. There is a divide between individuals who can work from home and keep their jobs and others who risk losing their jobs due to the impending death of the office building. And, there will be no way to work one’s way up to a home-office job if a person cannot ever afford the infrastructure to have a home office.
Finally, with remote work, employees do not have the same opportunities to engage in collaborative interactions with their colleagues, or foster collegial relationships to develop an understanding and appreciation of how to succeed and advance within the working culture of an organization.
These concerns of 100% remote work aren’t just limited to one’s physical surroundings and/or connectivity. The odds that a junior African-American employee is going to “chime up” in the middle of a Zoom video conference and say “I disagree” or “I have a different idea” are close to zero. Most virtual sessions do not lend themselves to the types of side conversations that people can have discreetly and without fear of retribution and these same individuals are not in most cases motivated to schedule calls or share issues by way of email at the risk of being seen as confrontational, as they are more likely to do in an in-person environment at perhaps the one opportune moment for such an interaction. Furthermore, one cannot know if a Black entry level employee has a great idea if they never see and interact with this individual, thus in-person mentorship opportunities will suffer as well.
There is no doubt many businesses that would love to cut their rent bill from their list of expenses. But before we go down that route, we better take a look at what that will mean for the society at large. As soon as it is clear that a person’s entire job can be done from home, it is inevitable that the job will eventually be done by individuals based outside of the United States at a much cheaper cost.
While there are growing and justifiable concerns about the resurgence of COVID-19 cases during the reopening of offices, property technology (PropTech for short), the digital and technological transformation of built spaces and the real estate sector, offers innovative technological solutions that can mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 and enable offices to reopen more safely.
In a world of increasing isolation, outsourcing and stratification, the end of the office building threatens to shrink the ladder of opportunity for many Black Americans. Offices have historically provided ways for Black workers to develop relationships and gather information, and opportunities for advancement that are significantly more challenging to provide virtually. To that point, the office building may actually be one of our best hopes of equalizing opportunities for all, and to eliminate it could unlevel the playing field for the most vulnerable among us.
John H. Jones, MBA, M.A, B.A., specializes in the intersection between the real estate, financial services, and technology industries. John served on Capitol Hill for over 15 years, where he worked as a chief of staff to a senior member of congress. Connect with him on Twitter (@MrJohnHJones) or LinkedIn.