February 23, 2024

Health Equity & Return to the Office

Stephen Massey & Malcom Glenn
Health Action Alliance

Employers should consider the unique needs of workers from hard-hit communities as they prepare for the “new normal.”

For the last two years, employers have had to be flexible, nimble and understanding as they implemented evolving health and safety protocols and managed remote workforces. Now, as they eye a return to the office amid a continued drop in COVID-19 cases, many of the same qualities that helped companies navigate earlier phases of the pandemic can help ease the transition back to in-person work environments.

Last week, we shared tips for supporting anxious workers returning to the office. It’s also important for employers to consider how reopening offices may impact Black, Hispanic and other workforce populations disproportionately affected by the virus, and to try to address their unique needs through an equitable return policy. As we all look forward to a “new normal,” this is a prime opportunity to make the new normal better than the one you had before.

Our senior health equity advisor, Malcom Glenn, recommends five steps companies can take to prioritize equity in their return-to-office plan.

1. Ask for input, not a rubber stamp. 

The most effective plans will take into account the concerns that specific groups of workers face. So employers should gather workers’ feedback before the details of your return-to-office policy are set, while there’s still time to shape the plan. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can be a helpful vehicle in this process, but you should view their role as representing workers, not “selling” your policy. 

2. Embrace flexibility.  

As you ask for employees’ opinions about returning to the office, understand that some groups of workers may thrive in a remote-work environment. Women are likelier to prefer remote work for reasons that include childcare or eldercare obligations. And Black women have disproportionate childcare responsibilities compared to women of other races. Other Black employees appreciate how remote work relieves them of racial burdens they experience in the workplace. Employers should be flexible where you can by implementing hybrid schedules, granting extended periods of remote work, or providing support for home care responsibilities.

3. Make sure employees aren’t penalized for staying home. 

Employees who need to stay remote shouldn’t be penalized for it, even inadvertently. Experts say that women who continue working remotely to balance a career and family care duties may be set up to miss out on advancement opportunities as leaders give preference to employees they see more frequently in person. As you strengthen company culture and cohesion in the office, look for ways you can include your remote workforce and ensure that you are fairly evaluating the work of those employees.

4. Consider how physical changes in the office may affect people with mobility challenges.

As companies welcome back their workers, they should implement or maintain measures to encourage social distancing, control employee circulation and reduce indoor capacity. However, you should also evaluate any physical changes to ensure they don’t place new burdens on employees with mobility challenges.

5. Communicate early and often.

Employers should provide as much notice of a return to the office as possible. Workers from communities of color may need time to make arrangements for family care, get ready for a longer commute than that of other colleagues (especially if public transit options have been reduced), or mentally prepare after two years of trauma in which Black and Hispanic people are the likeliest groups to know someone who died of COVID-19.