As we celebrate Labor Day this year, so many things have changed for how and where we do our “work.” When COVID shuttered offices and shifted the workplace to remote spaces and work-from-home options, so many of us scrambled to embrace the reality of virtual meetings and extended screen time, while fumbling with the dreaded “unmute” button.
Now that we’ve learned how to better navigate the pandemic, many are rejecting the notion of physically returning to in-person office settings for a variety of reasons: Increased productivity as a result of fewer office distractions, reduced “windshield time” eliminating the need to commute and more flexible hours that aren’t as rigid as the traditional 9-to-5.
Beyond the pros and cons of the Return-To-Office (RTO) debate, others were prompted by the global health crisis to completely re-examine their career and life journey. Described as “The Great Resignation,” many decided to simply leave their positions seeking greater fulfillment elsewhere. And while many employers were on their heels seeking ways to replace the talent they lost, an improving economy and greater market stability is changing the game about what are the expectations by both employers and employees seeking to succeed in this evolving environment.
For those of us in underrepresented groups, this shift from the Great Resignation to the Great Expectation can be a blessing or curse based on multiple factors. As an example, individuals who have higher levels of seniority (and who also happen to more likely be white and male) have more leverage to determine when and how they’ll physically be “in the office.” Conversely, younger execs who are more likely to be more diverse than their bosses by age and ethnicity have less leverage to dictate how and when they’ll show up. As a result, the young turks will have to make an extra effort to make sure they are seen when the seasoned lions are around and watching.
The struggle by Black folks and other people of color to be “seen” and valued has a history that extends well past the double disruption of the pandemic and ongoing racial unrest. Efforts around affirmative action helped to break down some of the barriers that changed the employment practices of companies and organizations throughout the country. Protests by activist shareholders and other strategic initiatives helped get more Black and Brown faces within boardrooms large and small. “Each One, Reach One” practices have helped diversify the way organizations recruit, hire, retain, mentor and promote people of color in some very meaningful ways.
But no one can argue that we had a long way to go to achieve diverse, equitable and inclusive conditions before the pandemic turned the world of work upside down. Despite the detour, the journey to continue creating better, stronger and more diverse entities presses forward.
And now that more organizations and institutions are seeking to re-set the culture into which they’re asking employees to return, there is a real opportunity — particularly for Black and Brown folks — to shape the evolving terrain to their advantage.
But seizing the moment will take strategy, smarts and intention. Here are some things that can be done right now starting first with your next Zoom, Teams or platform-of-choice meeting.
Be Visible in Virtual — As someone who works extensively with C-suite level execs and professionals, I can’t count the number of DM’s I’ve received during a virtual meeting about a young exec of color who chose to participate with their camera off. It frustrates me to no end because those asking the question of why the camera is off are subtly implying that the person is disengaged from the topic being discussed. As a rule of thumb: If the people in your virtual meeting are ranked higher than you and they have their camera on, follow their lead and activate yours. It demonstrates that you are as involved as they are.
Branch Out Beyond the Box — While virtual meetings are great for bringing people together, they are agenda-driven and very transactional in nature. With that in mind, there’s nothing wrong with scheduling some virtual face time with a higher-up outside of the scheduled meeting. It can help clarify issues, prompt some brainstorming and reinforce your presence so as not to be overlooked.
Show Up With Intention — Many organizations and institutions have begun to ease their employees into a return-to-work routine by staggering in-office schedules and planning social events intended to entice employees back to the fellowship that characterized their pre-pandemic work culture. Finding out who on the org chart is showing up where and when could help determine where and when your presence can have the greatest impact.
The reality is that remote work is an option that is here to stay and will likely occupy a more strategic role in how things get done. If we have to fight our way into how we make our presence known, that’s nothing new to those of us who have been fighting to be seen, heard and valued all of our lives. So, unmute yourself and shout loudly and proudly that you are the force that no pandemic could ever silence.