The United States professional world appears to be a meritocracy, where if you work hard enough, you have an equal chance to succeed. The pandemic and ensuing move to work and learn from home environments is exposing disparities revealing that the assumptions we have about access to success are unlikely true. The environment from which we are learning, working and trying to raise our families have an influence on our outcomes.
Recent news stories have reflected the ways that taking our professional and educational lives online is inadvertently revealing inequities in our lives. Perhaps your coworker has a special needs child who can no longer receive care from specialists and they’re struggling with balancing their child’s needs with work, or due to the presence of young and elderly people in a multi-generational household, a manager has more restrictive stay-at-home needs and is having a hard time being so removed from their regular life.
With so many individuals continuing to follow stay-at-home orders, whether by local or state ordinances and mandates or personal decisions for health or safety concerns, we should all become more aware of the impact differences in family make-up, socioeconomic status and personal upkeep may have on others. For many people of color, the idea that you would open up your home and reveal intimate details of your household is sacrilege.
As COVID-19 sent millions home from college and university campuses and office towers and high-rises, and working from home for an extended period of time with little opportunity to keep our usual schedule of personal and domestic upkeep, the facade we are able to keep while away at college or for eight hours during the work day is now an act of the past.
How Our Online Connections Are Exposing Disparities: The Good, Bad and Ugly
As Shonda Buchanan so eloquently explored in her personal article for AARP’s Sisters platform, the method that some managers are taking to keep teams connected over the many online meetings is to have them show more of their lives, from pets to plants to children and hobbies. Buchanan found herself vulnerable due to a demand to reveal personal details of her life inextricably related to race and gender which could result in prejudices from colleagues. It’s not surprising that she would feel cautious of how she presents and engages with her mostly White and Asian coworkers – 58 percent of Black professionals have experienced racial prejudice at work. Leaders should be concerned and take note – the same 2019 study from Center for Talent Innovation that found the aforementioned data point also found that more than one third of Black professionals intend to leave their role within the next two years due to such prejudices. The pandemic may have shifted the balance of power between job seekers and companies, but no one should have to put up with a hostile workplace, in person or virtually, in order to make a living.
College students, whose experience with higher education is the ideal exploration of America’s belief in meritocracy, are also finding out what it means when the supposed level playing field is revealed to be more topographically similar to the mountains, valleys and plains of the country. The New York Times reported on how class divides are being demonstrated in how students show up for online lectures. Some checked in from their parent’s mountain vacation homes away from the cases of coronavirus happening in the cities, while others checked in from their trailer homes and were forced to balance managing household finances with finding jobs as essential workers in grocery stores to help their families survive.
Accessibility for Professionals Who Work from Home
It’s not just students and professionals who are being challenged with online instruction and the magnification of disparities. For those with accessibility issues – hearing, reading or vision – moving from an office where human resources can adequately address their needs to a home office in which video and phone calls are primary means for connecting can prove restrictive to their work productivity and opportunities for advancement.
Leadership in human resources, professional development and departments should be ensuring that as they work toward solutions to keep teams connected, that digital accessibility is also considered. From simple options like making video meetings available for on-demand consumption to including captions or an interpreter for the hearing impaired, the status quo is not enough to meet the needs of some within the workforce.
Future for Us, a platform dedicated to advancing womxn of color at work through community, culture, and career development, recently held their annual conference Assembly, which had shifted from in-person to online. The lead-in and execution of the event was a masterclass in acknowledging how to ensure that all attendees are considered. Pre-conference communication gave those who needed accommodation ample time to contact the events team, and there were two sign language interpreters translating sessions throughout the six-hour event.
Get Ahead of Employee Needs for Discretion and Access
Solution providers who have been advocating for increased accessibility are at the forefront of helping businesses improve their capabilities. Kanarys advisor and disability rights expert John Register recently presented a webinar “How Employers Can Increase Disability Inclusion During and After COVID-19” which is available to view on Kanarys’ Resources Center.
Level Access has a library of resources and ongoing webinar series that specifically addresses COVID-19. Disability: IN also provides content on accessibility for professionals in work from home environments.
The best way for leadership to accommodate those who want to retain privacy or who may be struggling to keep up appearances is to allow them the space to choose video or not, or find ways to connect that aren’t connected to consumption (what’s your favorite Netflix binge or what are you buying online), physical prowess (workouts), alcohol consumption or status symbols. Mental health resources are more likely to be a better investment of staying connected than asking employees to reveal their homes and personal lives as they’re struggling.
If your company’s approach is fulfilling your needs for accessibility, exposing income disparities or helping you maintain your needs for privacy, we’d love to hear from you. Create a Kanarys account and leave a review to help others know what companies are invested in creating inclusive workplaces for all.