Remote work, racism weighing on workplaces

There are no easy fixes for either issue, but new research sheds light on some employer strategies.
By: | August 13, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Hannah McKay - Pool/Getty Images)

Remote work and systemic racism may not seem directly related on the surface, but both issues are weighing heavily on workplaces during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent pulse surveys from research firm i4cp, the Institute for Corporate Productivity.

Of 107 business professionals polled, 35% said recent increases in new infections of the virus have affected their plans for a return to the workplace, while 27% reported the pandemic hasn’t had any impact on their timelines.

In addition, more than half are either in a “holding pattern” about going remote (30%), with no decision made yet, or are allowing employees to work remotely for the balance of the year (22%).

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Related: Why embracing long-term remote work is ‘the right thing to do’

“Trepidation about these decisions is understandable,” says Lorrie Lykins, vice president of research at i4cp, noting that as of Aug. 11, more than 5 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the United States and more than 166,000 people have died.

Lykins says that only 13% of survey respondents said their workers have already returned to the office on a voluntary basis. “Others are taking tentative steps,” she adds. “Some noted approaches such as bringing back small groups of employees to the office as a pilot and assessing at the end of a few weeks.”

There are obviously no easy solutions, a similar theme that emerged from a separate survey on workplace racism. That poll focused on social media, particularly on how employees’ actions in their personal time can raise complex questions for employers.

Lykins says issues surrounding race, particularly in the current context of ongoing racial tensions, come up consistently in online conversations, chat threads, emails and even LinkedIn posts, posing a challenge for HR leaders.

“Many of us are thinking about this and asking ourselves and one another questions about this issue,” she says. For example, how should employers respond when employees post aberrant content on their private social media accounts? What is the best policy? What should be in the policy? What are the parameters? Who decides what is inflammatory, derogatory, offensive, or racist? Where are the lines, and how do we know when they are crossed?

Related: 5 ways to address negative social media

Unsurprisingly, a majority of respondents (51%) said their organizations take an investigative approach—looking into the post(s) in question and making decisions based on what they learn. But, Lykins notes, the number of organizations (23%) that currently have no policy addressing this issue was a surprise.

In fact, a few survey respondents noted in their comments that, while their organizations’ stated core values and guiding principles are clear and reinforced to the workforce often, they aren’t sure what the policy is on employees posting racist social media posts.

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“We always say, ‘We don’t tolerate intolerance,’ but specific to social media postings etc.—it’s unclear,” one survey participant wrote.

“Not having a policy can result in irrevocable damage to an organization’s brand,” Lykins says, adding that i4cp’s research has shown that lower-performing organizations are more likely to remain silent when it comes to taking a stand on political or social issues.

“Not saying anything—which itself sends a message—can be as detrimental as having employees posting terrible things on an account that mentions they work for your organization.”

Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.