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Office culture fails black people, so why would we want to go back?

Commutes, expensive lunches, not to mention the exhaustion of codeswitching and microaggressions – and, you know, the pandemic – there are few reasons why some black people would want to go back to the office at all.

04 Sep 2020

Niellah in the office / Photography by Shopé Delano

If I could get back all the money I’ve spent on Pret’s avo, olive and toms baguettes, then I’d probably have enough money to afford therapy for the stress that comes with being a black woman in a workplace. Although lockdown and a global pandemic have been nothing short of a dystopian living hell, for me one of the few good aspects to come from it has been working from home.

As lockdown came into full effect, anyone who could was encouraged to stay at home and work there. Goodbye commutes, adios expensive lunches, ciao awkward corridor encounters, we were working from bed. And if there’s anything I’ve learned over lockdown about offices, it’s that Friday drinks do not make me better at my job, working 9-5 is a made-up scam, and you don’t actually need to be shut in an office for the majority of your waking life to get your work done. 

But gradually, the government eased us out of lockdown (even with the second most recorded deaths in the world) by opening shopping centres before libraries, and people who didn’t work in offices or some who were on furlough returned to work. 

And now in a last-ditch attempt to save our plummeting economy (via Pret?), the Confederation of British Industry and random brands like Dettol are encouraging us to all put back on our New Balance walking trainers and go back into the office, with the head of the CBI warning of “ghost towns” if we don’t go back in (ooo scary). While there are some positives with offices, most of which don’t spring to mind for me – if you’re black there’s often probably more shit parts. As for Dettol’s sad little Tube advert, it’s done nothing more than depleted everyone’s serotonin levels by forcing us to reminisce on “weird carpets” and “caffeine-filled air” as if we’re not all addicted to caffeine because of the crushing weight of capitalism. 

“Call me a miserable introvert, but I’ve always been pretty underwhelmed by the idea of offices”

Call me a miserable introvert, but I’ve always been pretty underwhelmed by the idea of offices – the office socials, watercooler chat, or feigning interest in my colleague’s kids’ baby pictures. I simply don’t care. Don’t get me wrong, I love the gal-dem offices – aesthetics? *chefs kiss* and I get to work with people that look like me, and there’s always moisturiser to hand, but as far as your average British workplace culture is concerned – they are simply not built with us in mind. 

More often than not when I’ve been one of the few black faces in an office, I just want to get on and do my job, yet that’s rarely possible for black folks who like to mind their business. But before we even get into the office, let’s start with public transport. There is simply no bigger turd on my day than getting on the overground and being squashed in with hordes of dead-eyed commuters jumping in at Canada Water. There’s an inevitable argument with someone who’s walked into me, or pushed their way onto the tube before I can get off, because of the simple fact white people rarely move out the way for us. And now I’m pissed off before I’ve even reached the office door fob. So, it’s no wonder commuting can take such a strain on your mental health

“Lockdown has given so many a break from code-switching and performing, allowing us to just get on and do our jobs in peace”

Working remotely we are safe from the clutches of fingers in fresh knotless braids, we can contently sit with a face like thunder and know HR won’t be called on us, and we’re so so close to our own fridges and loo. Too many of us are time-poor, chugging along as part of the machine – this is time we could be spending with our loved ones, time really looking after ourselves, or time watching another episode of Selling Sunset

Unfortunately, promotions happen in the dingy corners of riverside pubs after the third round of drinks you’ve been pressured into, and you could find yourself taking a trip to your bosses office for not entertaining daily doses of microaggressions. The lockdown has given so many a break from code-switching and performing, allowing us to just get on and do our jobs in peace. There’s something so satisfying about being able to work with your hair however you choose, knowing you won’t get accosted by wayward Katie in the kitchen asking annoying questions about your ‘fro. And it’s sad that that’s even a problem!

Now I’m not saying we should get rid of offices and all work from home, and working from home won’t save us from all microaggressions. But in an ideal world, we should have a choice. We should have management that allows flexibility and doesn’t expect us to come back to an office in a pandemic, a pandemic that is statistically harming black people the most. We shouldn’t feel like we have to choose between a family and our careers. Travel and childcare needs to be more affordable and so does housing. We need workplaces that have a good, strong office culture otherwise honestly why would we want to go back? Anyway, personally I’ll have to be dragged back into an office kicking and screaming.