Three years into the pandemic, we are still, as noted drag queen Mistress Isabelle Brooks would say, in our WFH era. While many companies have retained a hybrid or embraced a permanent 100% WFH model, working remotely can also make it feel tougher to build and sustain community. Heading into our fourth pandemic Pride season, many LGBTQ+ folks feel discouraged about the state of corporate celebrations. We chatted with a few community members and a Bright + Early diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) specialist  to discover some ways corporations can improve their Pride initiatives—and make the WFH era a little less stressful for LGBTQ+ employees.

Communications manager Jared*, who is gay, started working for a mental-health organization early in the pandemic and was excited to discover that his work had a LGBTQ+ program. “I thought it wasn't marketed enough and that it could be an easy thing to hype up and to bring up during months like Pride as we were actually walking the walk rather than just talking the talk,” he says. Then he found out that it was not a functioning program, but, he says, was still being used for advertising purposes since they "couldn't fill the spots.” Jared took it upon himself to try and improve the amount of remote-friendly Pride content being produced both during Pride and year-round, providing blog posts and webinars to his fellow WFH staffers. But, he says, “anything company-led was initiated by myself. There was nothing from higher-up executives pushing for these events and I felt as if I had to constantly defend why we were to do these things.”

All Pride initiatives were shouldered by Jared and his other gay coworker. Even the occasional in-person activations fell to the LGBTQ+ team members: the company sponsored Toronto Pride and had a booth at the festivities—but Jared and his coworker had to do all the work. They finally begged for some non-queer staffers to step up to handle teardown so they could have some time off to enjoy the festivities, but they ended up getting stuck with the manual labour anyway, when he was supposed to be out celebrating with friends. He didn’t even get an apology.

It’s important for companies to make their employees feel uplifted and empowered: “this should be a priority for leadership to ensure the working culture is positive,” Jared says. “It is not fair to put all Pride initiatives solely on the LGBTQ+ employees, but rather offer avenues in which they can lead or be involved in larger scale events. It gets tiring for the person to have to constantly defend why Pride initiatives or programming are important and then they feel as if they let the community down by not being the fierce advocate for the queer community.”

Working remotely has, at least, offered a good opportunity to share innovative content. Webinars can be wonderfully inclusive, given how employers can hire speakers from a wider range of places, and remote events can be more accessible in many ways. In Jared’s case, his mental-health and addictions organization has produced amazing alumni stories of people within the LGBTQ+ community and hosted webinars or panels with sober queer people. Jared helped to launch a series about interviewing queer people in recovery that could easily be shared with the masses—but, sadly, he says, the leadership does not prioritize promoting the content internally or externally, so it does not get as much exposure as it deserves.

The Canadian Armed Forces have also failed in this regard. Seline*, who is gay, has worked there for almost a decade and, she says, “with the amount of resources we have, I found it to be vastly underfunded and the initiatives bleh.” Examples include hosting a booth at Pride and walking in pride parades. Once she started working from home, the effort decreased even more. “They may have done more, but all I saw was an email,” she says. “I noticed that the organization cared as little about Pride as they always have.”

Now that there is an increase in assaults on LGBTQ+ human rights, it is more important than ever that employers reach out to WFH employees to provide advocacy and support. “[Pride celebrations] must be everywhere. If a transphobe or homophobe wants to cry about it, push it harder,” she says. “Make efforts for real change, education, and tough conversations. Everything is so whitewashed and corporate-speak. It makes learning and engaging with the topics and members so fake and unhelpful. They need to tap members in to leadership with the knowledge and tools to affect change, yet the same old-ass men with old-ass ideals always get pumped up to lead when they shouldn’t.” One concrete step that can help: educating managers and HR reps to provide appropriate support for LGBTQ+ employees enduring added stress or fear due to recent human-rights incursions against LGBTQ+ folks. When Seline, for example, tried to share concerns about her fears for the future and within her organization, she said she was , “gaslit and reminded of how now is the best time in history for anyone.”

WFH does offer a good opportunity to virtually showcase positive LGBTQ+ stories and experiences from near and far, according to Riley, a non-binary trans bank employee. In the in-office days, many events would be hybrid already, offering up speakers to coworkers further afield. Now, because everyone is WFH a lot of the time, the bank has had to up its game and is taking advantage of the aforementioned webinar opportunities. They’ve provided more diverse speakers from across the nation. And subject matter has become more engaging to help prevent team burnout, according to Riley. “They really worked on their topics with their speakers more,” Riley says. “We've had some good speakers about a variety of topics.” This was, they say, a nice break from the in-person Pride events from the before times, which had a very “gay male, network-y” vibe. “It always seemed it was more for the extroverts and people who wanted to network, but over time they got increasingly more inclusive and the topics were ultimately more relevant to me, and more intersectional.”

Managing remote employee engagement activities can, however, be challenging. Riley, for example, struggled with the organizers’ tendency to introduce virtual breakout rooms, which can feel a little intimidating and isolating, especially for marginalized folks already dealing with anxiety: “It just might exclude people who are really busy and just wanna listen, or people who are really introverted. A lot of us are awkward and more reserved so that’s why I don’t want to always participate unless I have a lot of free time at work.”

One option that can help LGBTQ+ WFH employees feel more engaged in an organic way? Group chats. Riley is in a group chat for trans folks at work that provides valuable emotional support and camaraderie (and, of course, cat memes). In the WFH era, it can reach farther than just the local office, too: “it was interesting because everyone from every geography can participate,” Riley says.

WFH can also provide LGBTQ+ employees a safe space during turbulent times or even if they’re transitioning and not up for being in the office. “The benefit from working from home also is that nobody has to see me choose which washroom I’m using,” they say. “Or imagine if you’re transitioning; that would be an excellent time to be working from home, even if it’s temporary.”

Many LGBTQ+ employees not only don’t feel supported during the WFH era, but feel actively taken advantage of when it comes to corporations seeking diversity clout. Brad*, who is gay and trans-questioning, left his previous job because he felt exploited in the queer and trans space. “Queer and trans volunteers did much of the work that straight and cis employees were paid for. Queer and trans volunteers were used for policy consulting, marketing, corporate communications, public relations, and segment revenue-driving initiatives,” he says. “Compensating us would have been an improvement. Understanding the unique needs of the community are another, including standing behind mental programs, supporting rehab programs, and long-term planning support for aging queer and trans folks.”

During the virtual-forward WFH era, meaningful programs like these are rare, according to Brad, with WFH efforts feeling like lip service at best. “There might be a useless webcast or Microsoft Teams presentation and optional backdrop. It wasn’t about employee inclusion anymore. It wasn't a priority. Money is the priority. PR is a priority. When those events and opportunities to get a return on investment were limited, so was the importance of having them,” Brad says. 

Recently, even the leadership have made the most basic fumbles; when the CEO gave a remote address about LGBTQ+ issues, they did not mention trans people. “I was livid,” Brad remembers. “All I care about is that if they say they are inclusive, their investments, funding, leadership are all aligned to that. Don’t rainbow-wash and then fund anti-trans [agendas]. Don't say you are inclusive but intentionally leave out gender identities from your messaging because it's a contentious issue. We smell through all the bullshit and it's insulting when they don’t walk the talk,” Brad says. “Create roles that compensate the community of employees who identify rather than paying others. But honestly, I don't think they will ever truly care enough about it to make meaningful changes.”

Brad echoes Jared’s idea of how important it is for allies to lead the WFH Pride work to reduce piling unpaid labour onto LGBTQ+ employees. “I love drag queens, but all I would truly like is to see straight cis people doing the extra work around Pride, not marginalized people picking up the extra,” he says. “Maybe all the straights in the organization should be made to work our celebration.”

Clea Arrieta, an HR consultant and DEI specialist with Bright + Early, also agrees. “It's important for leaders to not look at the one openly out person on the team and expect them to volunteer if there is no employee resource group [ERG] in place,” she says. “That’s how harm is caused and shifts emotional labour onto someone not supported or compensated for this added responsibility ” Instead, it’s important for companies to set up and maintain LGBTQ+ ERGs prior to Pride. “Nobody loves when the HR team or leaders try to create something that's super off the mark, so utilizing any committees that are already in place is always a good idea,” she says. “It's important that these groups  are funded, have executive sponsorship, and are relied on for things pertaining to the groups’ identities. I am a big believer in ERGs but also have seen a lot of harm when they're not done right.”

Companies can also help plan activities that are true to the company’s mission, which may feel more authentic for participants after spending the past few years primarily in our homes. A tech company, for example, could host a panel on how queer folks can navigate their careers via organizations like QueerTech that provide specific support for that community. Remote events can often be more accessible, and allow organizations to hire speakers from marginalized groups that might not be local. 

And while celebrating Pride is important—especially when folks are spread out in a WFH situation—it’s key, according to Arrieta, to offer institutional support year-round through updated HR processes, policies, and benefits. Organizations can consider relocation support from an unsafe place, or refuse to accept neutrality on political stances that attempt to tread the line of ‘including all beliefs’ but end up leaving queer employees feeling under-supported. When looking at benefits, companies can consider hormone replacement therapy, IVF, adoption, and inclusive parental leave as some non-traditional options that can help all employees– but specifically queer ones. And, at a bare minimum, companies can give queer employees space to grieve the challenges that their communities have been navigating.  “As a queer person, I don't want straight cis-het people to assume what I need”, says Arrieta. “I want them to ask me and let me be in charge of whether or not I feel respected enough to share my opinions and thoughts.”

Pseudonyms have been provided.