Kimberly Bryant, the founder of the nonprofit group Black Girls Code, recalls the spontaneous encounters with other people of color around the office that gave her a sense of belonging as she forged a career as an engineer. The wave in the cafeteria, the smile in the elevator, the nod in the hallway — for Ms. Bryant, “all would lead to connections that were instrumental in terms of my success.”
Those serendipitous occasions are just a memory, a casualty of the pandemic and the shift of tens of millions of employees from office settings to working from home. It’s also one way in which the rise of the virtual office places special burdens on people of color, according to diversity and inclusion officers as well as many employees.
With fewer connections and less extensive networks than white colleagues to begin with, Black and Hispanic workers can find themselves more isolated than ever in a world of Zoom calls and virtual forums. Assignments end up flowing to people who look more like top managers — a longstanding issue — while workers of color hesitate to raise their voices during online meetings, said Sara Prince, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey.
“It’s a critical issue, and there is a real risk facing diversity and inclusion in the current environment,” said Ms. Prince, who like Ms. Bryant is African-American. “When the leader is looking for someone to take up the mantle, most of them go to the comfort zone of people who remind them of themselves. This is exacerbated by the virtual office.”
The issues posed by working from home are worsened by the outbreak over all. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, 27 percent of companies put diversity and inclusion efforts on hold, according to a survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a research group.
Without an aggressive effort to counteract the pandemic’s impact on workplace dynamics, workers of color may suffer lasting career damage. “The unmanaged outcome is more isolation, less advancement, more job losses, and a real retrenchment in the progress around diversity and inclusion,” Ms. Prince said.
Corporations have been a focus for civil rights organizers since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May gave rise to protests and a broader examination of racial injustice.
In part, that focus reflects corporate America’s slow racial progress. Big businesses have made prominent contributions to organizations promoting social justice causes, and ad campaigns have highlighted companies’ engagement with communities of color. But the leadership of Fortune 500 companies continues to skew heavily white and male.
Some specialists on workplace diversity worry that as work shifts to home offices, efforts to advance people of color into executive positions will be blunted. More traditional candidates will end up dominating the conversation, they say, leaving others out.
Evelyn Carter, managing director at Paradigm, a consulting firm, cited a concept called distance bias to describe the dynamic that can occur in the virtual office. “You put more emphasis on people closer to you,” she said. “You don’t have connections where you don’t have proximity, so you maintain relationships with the people you already know.”
When employees gather online, it’s easier for some to fall through the cracks.
It’s harder to tell which employees have shrunk back in their chairs or otherwise withdrawn in virtual meetings, said Ms. Carter, who is African-American, but moderators should pay attention to clues like people with their cameras off and try to draw those participants back into the discussion.
Being visible is critical for people of color in the workplace and harder to achieve in a work-from-home environment, said Joy Fitzgerald, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the drugmaker Eli Lilly.
“To succeed, 50 percent is performance, 25 percent is perception and the other 25 percent, which is a force multiplier, is visibility,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, who is African-American. “But if people don’t know you, they don’t see you. It creates a higher degree of complexity and challenge for underrepresented groups.”
With many companies not expected to ask employees to return to their pre-pandemic workplaces before 2021, the implications of the virtual office for people of color have become an increasingly urgent topic for diversity officers, human resource chiefs and leaders in the Black business community like Ms. Bryant.
“A lot of us have some concerns about the impact on Black and brown communities as companies move to remote workplaces,” Ms. Bryant said. That’s especially true in the technology industry, which has struggled to diversify its heavily white and male work force.
People of color “have issues with feeling included in tech spaces,” she added. “There’s an added barrier to inclusion within a virtual space.” Black Girls Code, which she runs from Oakland, Calif., promotes the advancement of young women of color in technology jobs, offering training in software programs during after-school workshops and other sessions.
For Ms. Bryant, 53, who worked at the biotechnology company Genentech and other Bay Area operations, the connections that resulted from crossing paths in the hallway, the elevator and elsewhere led to lifelong friendships. There were few Black faces in what she terms a “monochromatic environment,” but out of adversity came deep bonds.
“You could share challenges as well as successes,” she said. “A good portion of those connections are still close.”
Other Black executives recounted similar experiences.
“I know what it’s like to be the only Black person or woman with your title in the room, and you do find that the opportunity to connect in person is helpful,” said Lanaya Irvin, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research group that looks at diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
The unexpected encounter may have been replaced by the formal geometry of the Zoom square, but not all experts consider that a bad thing. Tina Shah Paikeday, who oversees global diversity and inclusion advisory services at Russell Reynolds, the headhunting firm, thinks there might actually be some advantages to it.
“Most minorities are left out of informal networks and might not have been invited out for drinks or lunch,” said Ms. Paikeday, who is of South Asian descent. “The Zoom meeting is intentionally planned, and managers feel very intentional about inviting everyone.”
“It’s a great equalizer, and it creates opportunities for affinity group within large organizations,” she said. “It could end up being a good thing for minorities.”
Other diversity and inclusion officers concur with Ms. Paikeday, and emphasize that with leadership from the top, the virtual office can be designed to embrace all employees.
At Lilly, Ms. Fitzgerald has organized online forums in which workers of diverse backgrounds can share concerns and have access to top executives. After the killing of Mr. Floyd on May 25, Lilly convened a companywide one.
“For many Black and brown people, May 25 was a defining event, and we had a day of solidarity,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “We did a double click on racial justice. It was a learning opportunity, it was a connection opportunity, and it was a call to action.”
It was also a chance for employees to interact directly with the company’s chief executive, David A. Ricks, who kicked off the session. More recently, in mid-August, Lilly held its annual forum for Black and Hispanic employees, drawing 5,000 people for virtual discussions of issues like immigration, racial justice, equity and inclusion.
Such efforts, she said, will prevent the virtual office from becoming a barrier.
Goldman Sachs’s chief diversity officer, Erika Irish Brown, who is African-American, acknowledged that “these are very isolating times,” but said that in the virtual office “there is a leveling that occurs when everyone has the same-size box onscreen.”
To encourage a sense of connection and ensure that different voices are heard, Goldman has organized a series of meetings aimed at a wide variety of employees.
In the spring, the firm organized a large forum on anti-Asian sentiment, with senior leaders discussing their experiences. It was followed by a global session on racial equity that featured David Solomon, Goldman’s chief executive, moderating a panel discussion on race with three Black partners.
At Dell Technologies, the Black Networking Alliance organized two “moments of reflection” after Mr. Floyd’s killing. Nearly 30,000 employees, including Michael Dell, the company’s chief executive, dialed in to share their feelings and engage in a dialogue.
The Black Networking Alliance is one of 13 employee resource groups at Dell, said Brian Reaves, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the company. Others include Pride, Women in Action and Latino Connection.
“Whether it’s the elevator or the lunchroom, it’s nice to connect,” said Mr. Reaves, who is African-American, but he feels that these groups can take the place of those spots and keep workers from feeling isolated. “You can connect with anybody around the world.”
Whether or not that proves to be the case, it’s clear that the virtual office will endure even after the coronavirus has been conquered. Longstanding practices in areas like recruiting are changing, too, with candidates no longer having to start at headquarters and get to know co-workers of color through a nod or a wave.
“We’ll never go back to where we were before,” Mr. Reaves said.