Earlier this year, we surveyed more than 3,000 working adults in the US and UK about their experiences and opinions surrounding digital communication tools at work. The report sheds light on how these tools — from traditional email to modern video messaging — impact team connection, employee engagement, productivity, and more.
The report’s underlying theme is that modern office workers want to forge genuine connections with colleagues and be seen, heard, and understood at work—regardless of whether they’re fully remote or in-person. Much of the data also pointed to new tools’ ability to unlock greater visibility, improve self expression, and address pervasive communication challenges in the workplace. As a McKinsey report put it earlier this year, “it’s not about the office, it’s about belonging.”
However, while aggregate survey data can provide important insight into workplace trends for leaders, it’s important to avoid lumping all employees together as a homogenous unit. Keeping this in mind, we took a closer look at the data and found the ways in which BIPOC employees reported different experiences with workplace communication.
Shouldering the added burden of (over)explaining yourself
Ninety-one percent of all modern office workers have had their digital messages — emails, instant chat, Slack messages, etc. — misunderstood or misinterpreted by their coworkers.
Our data shows that these all-too-common misunderstandings feel even more prevalent for Black employees. The data revealed that Black employees are spending an average of two minutes longer than their white colleagues overthinking each of their digital communications interactions. They’re also more likely to add in extra punctuation and casual phrases (like ‘lol’ or ‘haha’) to clarify their tone or the intent behind their messages.
This echoes the long-reported data and experience of Black workers receiving extra scrutiny from managers and recent data about the prevalence of implicit bias in remote workspaces.
Resolving misunderstandings takes a toll on mental health
Feeling misunderstood at work (or proactively fearing misunderstanding) not only affects the way Black and POC workers communicate, but it also takes a toll on their mental health.
Black survey respondents from the UK reported feeling “less confident” and “unworthy” when messages were misinterpreted. And the data also reports that employees of color are spending more time than white colleagues to resolve miscommunications after it happens. And these employees are also more likely (37% vs. 30%) to set up a meeting with coworkers to clarify confusion. This not only takes time out of one’s day, but can add additional stress to the workday. This stress of resolving misunderstandings—though experienced by all groups—was more prevalent for Black and POC survey respondents.
Author, CEO, and inclusivity expert Mary-Frances Winters’ has run thousands of focus groups with Black and Brown employees. In her book, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, she takes a hard look at the corporate setting, reporting on the ways in which this stress “affects Black employees’ ability to do their best work. [...] Constantly being on guard and questioning yourself about how to respond to inequities is fatiguing.”
Signs of improvement: workplace ‘visibility’ is on the rise
The survey data also points to important improvements for the employee experience, including increased workplace visibility.
Thirty-five percent of people of color reported they are now communicating more with their teams than they did when they were in the office full-time. On top of that, 31% also report being able to better express themselves more and showcase their personal tone of voice, compared to 18% of their white coworkers. We also discovered that 33% of Black employees feel that their visibility with leadership has increased as a result of working remotely and using digital communication tools. Remote work, as it turns out, may be helping to level the playing field.
This data is a continuation of the positive trends reported last year by the Slack think tank Future Forum in which Black workers reported a “50 percent increase in their sense of workplace belonging and a 64 percent increase in their ability to manage stress once they began working from home.” This is not to say that visibility and belonging are “solved” by remote work, however, it’s a positive proof point for continued investment in initiatives and tools focused on these areas. As Future Forum reports, these positive trends are likely due to the more positive environment created by remote work, helping Black employees especially feel less of a need for “code switching.”
Workplaces are adapting, but there’s more work ahead
As companies settle into long-term plans, flexible work (whether hybrid or full-remote) maintains its stronghold. Seventy-four percent of U.S. companies are using or plan to implement a permanent hybrid work model. This is a promising trajectory, given the Future Forum study concluded that flexible work was “critical to a feeling of greater inclusion for Black workers.”
But much work remains to be done. Professor Laura Morgan Roberts and Assist. Professor Courtney L. McCluney co-authored an excellent piece for the Harvard Business Review in 2020, entitled “Working from Home While Black”. It breaks down ways in which managers and leadership can promote inclusive practices, including redefining and respecting employee boundaries, actively monitoring for bias, reevaluating workplace expectations, and more. They close with a quote from organizational psychologist Bernardo Ferdman, who wrote that “practicing inclusion implies that everyone should have a voice in defining the collective.”
Survey data like ours—in which workers can self-report their experiences—provides a tiny snapshot of a much larger picture. There are so many workplace elements that contribute to belonging, connection, and inclusion. But while communication at work is only one piece of that puzzle, it’s a particularly critical piece.