Remote work is protecting employees from toxic workplaces. Now, employers must do better, says expert

For many racialized or marginalized employees, the option to work from home has given them a sense of relief, says equity and inclusion expert Colleen James. She says companies need to use this time of remote work to improve conditions and policies for when people go back to the office.

Employees shielded from every day microaggressions, inappropriate remarks, expert says

Kitchener's Colleen James is the founder and principal consultant at Divonify, an equity and inclusion consulting firm. (Submitted by Colleen James)

Alexandra Joseph works at a consulting firm in Kitchener and says working from home has been "a saving grace."

She transitioned to remote work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and hasn't looked back. She plans on working from home for the foreseeable future.

Joseph said remote work shields her from harmful workplace microaggressions — intentional or unintentional discriminatory or derogatory remarks or behaviours. She has fewer in-person interactions with people, which means fewer opportunities to face those microaggressions.  

"It's a peaceful, safe place and you don't hear the background noise ... there's no office chatter," she said.

Joseph, a Black woman, said she has been subject to a spectrum of discriminatory situations including unsolicited and inappropriate comments about her hair.

"I don't have to deal with that anymore," she said.

For many racialized or marginalized employees, the option to work from home has given them a sense of relief.

Earlier this week, the Ontario government released a directive for employees to work remotely unless their job requires them to be on site as part of provincial restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise due to the Omicron variant.

Colleen James is founder and principal consultant at Divonify, a Kitchener-based equity and inclusion consulting firm. She says employers should go the extra mile and allow long-term options for remote work while addressing systemic racism and challenges to tackle microaggressions in the workplace.

Toxic workplaces

James said many work environments that do not foster safe spaces for othered, racialized or marginalized people, can often become toxic.

In those spaces, impacted people may feel the need to alter the way they speak, dress or even do their hair, said James, but often at home, they don't have to.

"It is a safer space because we can be our authentic self," she said, acknowledging that people can still be subject to microaggressions through remote work.

There is also time to recover from what is known as "racial battle fatigue."

"We're constantly on guard. We're constantly protecting ourselves," she said, "It's like going into battle almost because it has such a huge psychological effect on our mental health and even physical health."

Policy changes needed

Working for home is a temporary measure for many.

That's why James said employers must take action now and make policy changes to ensure a better return to the workplace.

She said it begins with acknowledging and recognizing the existence of microaggressions. One example of what could come next includes amending discriminatory policies to include language around microaggressions.

"So that, you know, when things do happen and things are reported, there is something to say: 'No, the company said there is zero tolerance for microaggressions, for discrimination,'" she said.

James said there are educational and training tools employers can also consider, along with additional policies that protect racialized and marginalized employees.

Employers should also consider allowing eligible employees to continue working from home long-term, if possible, she said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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LISTEN | Colleen James was recently on CBC Radio's Ontario Morning.

With files from Ontario Morning