Hands up who wants to make their workforce whiter?
Put another way, who thinks it is a good idea to run a business in a way that makes black staff or other people of colour think about quitting more than white employees?
I am aware these questions sound inane.
Yet I have not been able to stop thinking about them since I came across research suggesting this is precisely what some companies may be inadvertently doing as they try to lure workers back to the office from home.
The data comes from monthly surveys that a team of economists began last year to see what Americans think about the jolting shifts in working arrangements wrought by the pandemic.
The surveys have uncovered something that might not have gained wide attention if it weren’t for the great Covid working-from-home experiment.
People of colour want more time working from home than white people.
The researchers’ most recent data shows that, when asked how often they would like to work at home once the pandemic eases, white workers said 2.2 days a week on average.
Hispanic Americans said 2.42 days; Asian Americans 2.48 days and black Americans 2.54 days.
The difference is even starker when workers are asked what they would do if forced to return to the office five days a week.
A solid 33 per cent of white workers say they would go back but start looking for a job that let them work from home. For minority workers, however, the figure jumps to 40 per cent.
The same trend has emerged in other studies this year.
Only 3 per cent of black knowledge workers want to return to full-time office working, compared with 21 per cent of their white counterparts in the US, according to the Future Forum, a future of work think-tank launched by Slack, the workplace messaging app.
Its researchers think a number of factors explain the difference.
Working at home can reduce the need for black workers to constantly engage in draining “code-switching”, or changing the way they talk, dress or behave to fit into a predominantly white workplace.
They say it may also spare workers from “microaggressions”, offensive if often unintended incidents, such as being mistaken for a colleague of the same race, or having your hair touched.
A friend in London gave another reason why working from home made sense for people of colour like her: “This virus seems to hate us in particular.”
People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK have accounted for a disproportionate number of severe Covid cases and deaths.
As my friend said, that makes getting on to a train to go to work with a lot of unmasked commuters a distinctly uninviting prospect.
There is another group of workers who constitute a flight risk if pushed to go back to the office full-time: highly-educated women with young children.
The monthly surveys of Americans have shown 34 per cent of these women would like to work at home five days a week, compared with 26 per cent of men.
A lot of businesses are already scrambling to hire and hold on to women and minority workers. These figures suggest they should think carefully before trying to recreate pre-pandemic office life.
In today’s tight labour market, there is no sign of this changing any time soon. Regardless of race or gender, the share of US workers who say they would simply quit with no other job in hand if forced back to full-time office work has steadily risen this year, from 6.1 per cent in June to 7.8 per cent in September.
One of the economists leading the US survey research, Stanford University’s Nick Bloom, says these figures underline a fact of working life today that most large companies have grasped.
Any employer wanting to retain a well-educated, diverse workforce cannot force staff back to the office full-time, he told an FT conference two weeks ago.
“It’s just not possible,” he said. “We’re in a hyper competitive labour market for talent. You can’t do something that employees hate. It’s kind of Econ 101.”
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