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Who Wants To Return To The Office?

If you started working from home in the last 16 months, you’re in good company. Over 100 million Americans1 transitioned from in-person to remote work during the pandemic. And if you hope to continue working remotely, at least part time, once the office becomes relatively safe again, about 52 percent of people agree with you. 

But certain groups prefer to continue working from home more than others, meaning there might be a snag in companies’ “return to the office” plans beyond the threat of the delta variant. If there are disparities in who opts in (or out) of in-person work, physical offices run the risk of becoming whiter, more male-dominated, and more unfriendly to working mothers than they were before the pandemic. 

FiveThirtyEight examined the results of a survey of over 10,000 global knowledge workers2 recruited by Future Forum, a research consortium run by Slack.3 The survey included over 5,000 respondents from the U.S., plus approximately 1,000 additional respondents each from Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

We wanted to see which groups, if any, want to return to full-time in-person work. Participants were asked a variety of questions, including how working remotely compares with office work, how satisfied they were with their workplace and where their sense of belonging stood at this point in the pandemic. We then looked at the workplace experiences of groups that experts have already identified as having been most affected by the switch from in-person to remote work: those who experience workplace inequality due to their race, gender, or both; and those who provide the majority of their family’s childcare or eldercare.

The group most enthusiastic to return to in-person work is white men — 30 percent want the office to be the only place where they work. Roughly half as many Black men — almost 16 percent — feel the same. White and Black women are in the middle, around 22 percent each.

That might be because in the U.S., office culture was originally created to accommodate the needs of white people, and specifically men, says Angelica Leigh, a professor of management and organizations at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Leigh’s research shows that when dealing with the aftermath of massive social events that disproportionately affect people of color, such as the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, many employees of color supress their emotions in order to fit into the norms of the office. She and her colleague refer to that suppression as identity labor.

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Identity labor is caused by the institutionalizing of whiteness in the workplace. White ways of speaking and dressing — to name just two examples — are typically preferred, and anything beyond that narrow range of acceptability can be deemed “unprofessional.” 

“If you aren’t a white male, you have to adapt yourself to fit into white male professional norms while you’re in the workplace,” Leigh said. “So white women do have to adapt their behaviors a bit to fit into male-dominated cultures, but Black employees have to adapt, change or hide who they are much more to fit in.” That adaptation can take the form of limiting the range of emotions shown at work in order to not to be perceived as angry, or code-switching to fit in linguistically with white colleagues.

The American workplace started to integrate women and people of color in the 1940s and ’50s. Until the 1990s, many office spaces favored a transparently hierarchical way of working. Lower-paid employees, who were often women and Black people, sat in the same large room under supervision. Executives, who were more likely to be white and male, worked on higher floors and in private, closed-door offices.

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Many companies have tried to improve the physical conditions of the workplace to address the exclusionary consequences of antiquated office designs. This can mean instituting open-floor plans and transparent barriers between offices. However, efforts that supposedly facilitate inclusion are often no more than performative, according to Leigh. A more productive solution, for example, could see, companies pledge resources to conduct ongoing research on disrupting bias in their organization. (Plenty of other strategies are also available.)

But with preexisting solutions still coming up short, one reason people don’t want to go back to the office is simply because they feel better at home. The ability to work remotely has been a net positive when it comes to employees’ sense of belonging, satisfaction, and stress and anxiety at work.

Working remotely helps some demographic groups more than others. This was particularly true for Black men, as 47 percent reported that their sense of belonging at work is slightly or much better than in-person (though 30 percent said it hasn’t changed). Working remotely helped anxiety about work, too — 64 percent of Black men reported less work-related stress and anxiety in a remote setting.

There are reasons why remote work may be particularly beneficial for employees of color, who tend to experience microaggressions, harassment, and abuse more than their white colleagues in traditional in-person settings. “Remote work may offer people some chances to protect themselves from some kinds of discriminatory treatment,” said L. Taylor Phillips, an expert on workplace equity at New York University’s Stern School of Business.  

Leigh agreed. “Dealing with racism, sexism and other forms of oppression is exhausting, and sometimes employees do need a break from just pushing through. Remote work can provide employees with that time and space to escape.”

It’s also harder, but not impossible, to be racist or sexist in a work environment of recorded meetings and emails that can be easily forwarded. For Leigh, who is a Black woman, working remotely has relieved her from having to endure comments on changes in her hairstyle from non-Black colleagues. 

But there’s still a significant gap in terms of how comfortable employees feel. Sixty-four percent of non-Hispanic Black women working remotely said they are treated fairly at work (it’s 76 percent for non-Hispanic white women). For non-Hispanic Black men, that number is 72 percent. Non-Hispanic white men feel the best about their treatment, with 81 percent saying they are treated fairly.

Workplaces weren’t exactly meeting the needs of women and mothers prior to the pandemic. Stories of women’s and mothers’ mistreatment and lower pay are rife throughout many industries, and they’re often addressed with cosmetic rather than structural fixes, such as making breastfeeding at work easier without improving parental leave policies. 

Holes in the global care infrastructure became more apparent during the pandemic. Women were the overwhelming majority of back-up care providers when schools and daycares closed, causing a disproportionate number to leave their jobs. And mothers who were able to remain in the workforce still fall behind fathers on outcomes like workplace belonging and work-life balance.

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Our data shows that, among parents of both genders, working fathers were more likely to respond to questions about their work-life balance, workplace satisfaction and feelings of belonging as “very good” or “good.”

Phillips and other scholars call this dynamic the “fatherhood bonus,” meaning that some men with children benefit from workplace practices that accommodate parents without actually having to take on the extra burden of childcare.

The data backs her up. When parents were asked about how they might spend the time saved from a flexible, remote schedule, women were more likely than men to select “being better able to take care of family and personal obligations throughout the day.” Flexibility between remote and in-person work may only increase moms’ time spent working by adding domestic labor to the front or back end of their workday (or both).

Still, parents of both genders rated their remote working conditions as more favorable than in-office conditions.

Perhaps surprisingly, American women without children reported generally lower satisfaction and worse work-life balance with remote work than working mothers. This might be partially explained by limited research showing that child-free employees feel they are given less flexible leave time compared to their co-workers with children. 

Where we go from here

If people opt-in to in-person work or quit altogether in patterns that reflect their current satisfaction with remote work, there could be fewer people of color, women and mothers working in-person when the pandemic recedes. That means workplaces could resemble the offices of the ’40s and ’50s more than they did before the pandemic. 

And one-size-fits-all solutions might just exacerbate the problems that caused marginalized groups to prefer remote to in-person work in the first place. The experts I spoke to felt strongly about responding to employees’ specific needs rather than imposing hard and fast return-to-the-office plans, such as asking all employees to work from the office for a set number of days.

Experts also stressed that equity in the age of hybrid work will mean no longer allowing executives to work from anywhere in the world while others’ job security is tied to in-person work. It will mean flexible schedules and subsidized childcare for employees with children. (Childcare subsidies are exceedingly rare, but preliminary evidence shows that they reduce mothers’ care burdens significantly.) 

But managers will still have to make sure that in-person spaces are just as diverse as remote settings. Phillips sees that as a way to ensure equal power and opportunities among groups. 

“The pandemic has offered additional evidence regarding what we already know works: changing access to economic power ultimately changes group equality. More representative hiring, more equitable pay and benefits, even small things that build over time like turn-taking in meetings can all shift access to economic power, and thus affect group equality,” she said.

And so the question isn’t whether working from home will stick — it’s whether executives will take into account the findings of this widespread work-from-home experiment to reevaluate who the system is working for.

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  1. That’s a rough calculation, based on the overall size of the workforce in October 2020 (160 million people) and the share of the workforce that, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, was working from home at that time (71 percent).

  2. As with any data analysis, the definition of our terms is important. In this case, we didn’t do the defining. Future Forum decided a “knowledge worker” was anyone who handled information for a living. So jobs like architect, office administrator and software engineer all fall under that big umbrella.

  3. Future Forum worked with Qualtrics, a survey software and sample recruitment company. The survey was fielded in April and May of 2021.

Angelica Puzio is a freelance gender reporter and doctoral candidate in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University. Her research and writing examine the gender dynamics that underlie human behavior.