July 17, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
The COVID-19 driven mass migration of office workers to home offices, and the apparent effectiveness of videoconferencing in this Zoom era, have prompted a lot of speculation on the future of the office. Is it out of date? Do we really need offices anymore?
We should approach this idea with caution because moving the workplace out of the office building permanently would have serious downsides. Not the least of those would be severely disadvantaging the career opportunities of African Americans and other minorities.
Offices have enhanced financial and professional opportunities for African Americans by providing the rare shared space where people of all races must interact with one another, and do so in a civil and respectful manner.
Think about the times you have interacted with people outside of your race. How many of those people did you meet at a place other than work or school? Remember those pre-COVID-19 days when you used to go to a restaurant at lunchtime and see tables filled with office workers of various races and ages enjoying a meal together? How often does this happen if it’s not occurring through workplace relationships?
Unfortunately, if we make 100 percent remote work environments the norm forever, it’s inevitable that race and class divisions will increase. Offices play a critical role in racially levelling the professional advancement playing field. They give employees of all backgrounds the same opportunities to engage in collaborative interactions with their colleagues, to foster collegial and mentor relationships, and to develop an understanding and appreciation of how to succeed and advance within the workplace.
There are other downsides to abandoning offices that would put roadblocks in the way of minority job advancement.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor of Statistics, only about 20 percent of African Americans, and even fewer Latinx workers, have the ability to work from home, due to the nature of their jobs. Eliminating the office permanently would effectively eliminate their positions.
There also is a digital divide that separates minority and white office workers when they leave the office. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States 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. This is particularly true among communities of color. Before we abandon the office in favor of home workspaces, we should ask, “Is everyone’s home workspace equal?”
In a world of increasing stratification, the death of the office building threatens to shrink the ladder of opportunity for many African American workers. Offices always have been a place where African Americans have been able to develop relationships, gather experience and work toward opportunities for advancement. These opportunities are significantly more challenging to provide virtually.
The office building may actually be one of our best hopes of equalizing opportunities for all Black professionals. Eliminating it would unlevel the playing field. Getting Americans back to the office, as safely and responsibly as possible, will be one of the first steps in supporting the elimination of systemic prejudice, racism and microaggressions in the workplace and in bringing more opportunities for career advancement, mentorship and Black leadership into America’s managerial roles, C-suites and boardrooms.
John Jones is vice president of government relations at Nareit, the worldwide representative voice for REITs and publicly traded real estate companies with an interest in U.S. real estate and capital markets.
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