Widespread working from home could lead to an increase in racism and prejudice, a new report warns.
Workplace friendships are key to breaking down misconceptions, the England and Wales study for the Woolf Institute suggests.
Institute founder Ed Kessler said as more people work from home they risk going “back into isolated silos”.
He called on ministers to focus on offices and workplaces as a “vital” area for improving community relations.
The study, conducted by polling company Survation for the Woolf Institute, which researches interfaith relations, surveyed 11,701 people.
Hadiya Masieh, who is Muslim, became close friends with Samuel Rosengard, an Orthodox Jew, after working together.
Samuel said that while he had never had racist or Islamophobic views in the past, he may have had “misconceptions” about Muslim communities.
“Meeting Hadiya has really helped clarify where my thinking can be askew,” he said.
Hadiya agreed saying that for her “it was more of a political thing about Israel and Palestine”.
But through their work they have become close friends.
“It was just a very natural relationship that we formed because we had the exact same agenda and passions,” Hadiya said.
“We were both from very different backgrounds and the idea of Israel and Palestine was a hot topic. But we were able to discuss that in a way that was understanding of each other.”
Samuel added: “Before Covid we would have regular discussions about these kinds of issues. And also identifying common cultural traits between Jewish and Muslim communities, and areas of agreement and disagreement.
“Hadiya and I would often start off conversations just bumping into each other in the open plan office and then head off for a coffee. But that just doesn’t happen. So that is a loss.”
The study suggests that of those who work in shared offices, three-quarters (76%) – regardless of ethnicity – were in a setting that is ethnically diverse.
However, it suggests that unemployed people are 37% more likely to only have friends from their own ethnic group.
And it warns that without alternative settings to offices being set up, opportunities for social mixing between different religious and ethnic groups will be greatly reduced.
The study also examined people’s opinions on diversity.
Its findings suggest that while nearly three-quarters of non-black or non-Asian respondents were comfortable with a close relative marrying a black or Asian person (74% and 70%), less than half (44%) said they were comfortable with the idea of a close relative marrying a Muslim person.
“The word ‘Muslim’ appears to trigger more negative sentiment than the word ‘Pakistani’,” the report says. This is “despite the fact that 90% of people of British Pakistani heritage are Muslim”.
The study estimated the level of prejudice in each local authority across England and Wales. Researchers used a technique known as Multilevel Regression Poststratification (MRP), which looks at the survey responses and the demographics of each area.
As well as being the most common target of negative attitudes by other faith groups, the report indicates Muslims are the group most likely to hold negative attitudes towards people of other religions.
The study also suggests that diversity of friendships and colleagues varies significantly around the country.
Even after accounting for factors such as the age, educational attainment and ethnic makeup of an area, people in north-east England are 150% more likely to have only British friends and 68% more likely to have only British colleagues, compared with people in London.
The report says any apparent prejudice toward religion could be due to people feeling it is more acceptable to express negative sentiment towards religion than ethnicity.
Religion remains “a place where individuals are willing to express negative attitudes,” the report says.
“Being Muslim, in particular, appears to remain a ‘trigger’ for prejudice, making religion a ‘final frontier’ for prejudice in England and Wales,” the report’s author Dr Julian Hargreaves added.
The survey was undertaken by Survation on behalf of the Woolf Institute. Survation spoke to a nationally representative sample of 11,701 adults across England and Wales between 29 March and 5 April 2019.
The results indicating the proportion of people in each local authority who would be happy with a friend or close relative marrying someone from various backgrounds use a technique called Multilevel Regression Poststratification (MRP).
MRP projects the results of the survey onto local authorities based on the demography of the area. However, some estimates contain wide margins of error and statistically non-significant differences between local authorities.