Marissa Mayer

Thank you! Marissa Mayer

Thank you! Marissa Mayer

Yahoo jolted everyone this week by banning remote work for its employees. The story has not stopped making headlines since then. The great thing that emerged was that the seemingly global majority undecided on workflex turned out to be its supporters. We have to thank Marissa Mayer for spotlighting the issue.

Traditionally, it is not new for businesses to deem workflex as ‘not for us’. For years, businesses have left un-extracted value on the table. For the fence-sitters and cynics, it might be interesting to go over key work-life trends in this context.

In case you haven’t noticed, businesses need to acquire, retain and grow trust from all their stakeholders, more than ever before. The open information network, the rise of global citizenship, the younger workforce have all meant that trust is the core around which businesses need to maneuver themselves. The trust economy lends itself to what is termed as the rise of creative collaboration – multitude of skills, backgrounds and energies combining to solve common problems.

There is no absolutism in business anymore. Blended business models, complex eco-systems, shorter business life cycles – have reduced the island approach in business. Never say never was never truer. Collaboration, blended models, constant reevaluation, fast change, constant communication – are some trends businesses have to live with now.

Isn’t 21st century an age of choice? The choice to be able to marry who you want, live where you want, learn what you want, have the world’s information at your disposal? And that applies to corporations too. Variety and variation in everything – from products we buy, to services we choose, to lives we lead. Workplaces need to acknowledge that needs and aspirations vary from individual to individual, from geography to geography and that workforce is not a lump of homogenous large group with no individuality. It includes everyone – global migrants, the natives, the digital citizens, the DINK couples, the single moms, gay families, elderly, veterans, the Gen X, Y and more.

Remote work, telecommuting, work from home is just one page out of the workflex formats. There are over a dozen other formats that fit various business and strategic needs. These include flex work day, flex work week, job share, part time, core team flex roles etc. Carving out flex formats to suit an organisation’s growing needs is a function of business needs and needs to be thought through as part of the core planning process. However, many business teams find them at a loss when it comes to curating these engagements. Workflex formats are not one size fit all but. Workflex formats are not one size fit all but when applied in business contexts, will be key to business results. Businesses, which commit time and resources to plan these as part of their core, yield better long-term gains – of productivity, cost saving and engagement.

Virtualisation of work and life is a real thing. For every 100 texts, IMs, Skype calls, there are perhaps five meetings. It is only going to grow, as we raise of children with smartphones in their hands from day one. They know no other reality and it simplifies things to enhance adaptability for us, who came in with a different version of work-life fit. Work will never be fully virtual or fully cubicle. Both will stay but the trend is weighing towards higher virtualisation.

The uncertainty surrounding global economic conditions, the fall of the big global corporation, the result of the industrial age environment fatalism have shifted the pointer towards Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). Anyone who follows the changing workplace trends will be able to tell you that SMBs are the big adopters and drivers of workflex. They are agile, adoptive, extract business value and are ready to make that investment. They are the ones who employ a large percentage of the workflex employees and build flexibility as a core business value. Home based work is only going to grow as technology gets better, work more knowledge driven and work-life choices more diverse. In fact, teleworkers is the fastest growing category of workers globally.

The central resource in a knowledge led organization is the disposition and discretion of the worker. A CEO’s task before the balance sheet is to tilt the mindset of the knowledge worker in favor of the organisation and its mission. Leadership today is less about whom you lead and more about who wants to be lead by you. Physical, mental, cognitive well-being is the most valuable unwritten column in the P&L statement of a company and its impact is only set to grow.

No organisation of today is built on industrial age principal of silos. Flow, fluidity, constant change leading to increased sharing is the form of new age business. One thing leads to another, the world is a networked place, we want to share more, participate in the open sharing economy, learn through open streams of shared knowledge and align ourselves with communities that catch our interest, irrespective of their global locations. Businesses need to be cognizant of this fact and respond to the fact. The future is now.

The original article was featured as a opinion piece in The Times of India, Crest Edition

Home is where the work is

Yahoo! chief Marissa Mayer may think working from home hampers productivity, but those lucky enough to be able to do it in India say they have the best of two worlds, says Varuna Verma.

Priya Rao took a six-month break from work when she had her baby last year. The Information Technology (IT) professional had thought that it would give her sufficient time to bond with the child and help her regain her strength before getting back to work. But when her maternity leave was drawing to an end, Rao realised that she couldn’t leave her infant son at home in the care of a nanny for the whole day. “But I did not want to give up working either,” says Rao, a software architect at a Bangalore-based software company.

That is when Rao approached her company’s HR team to figure a way out. And she found them willing to make adjustments. “For the next one year, I worked half days and put my son in the crèche on the office campus. This way, I could check on him between meetings and conference calls,” Rao says.

With the growing number of women in the workforce, the practice of flexi-hours (which particularly helps women mind both their jobs and homes) is slowly catching on in India. Not surprisingly, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to annul a company policy that allowed employees to work from home has triggered a debate on the pros and cons of the practice.

Hundreds of women in India would disagree with Mayer. “Flexible work routines are a growing trend in India,” says Sairee Chahal, founder, Fleximoms, a portal that connects women to companies offering flexi-work job options — such as work from home or doing suitable hours. “Workflex is gaining currency because of better access to technology, a lack of traditional care giving and the rise in double income households,” she explains.

Launched in 2009, Fleximoms claims to have a community of 1,00,000 virtual women members, of whom 5,000 have found suitable flexi-jobs. Its corporate clients include Honeywell, Intel, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Castrol.

Many companies have been encouraging employees to adopt flexi-time. PricewaterhouseCoopers India has several options on offer. Telecommuting is an option where employees working in their local office may sometimes work one day a week at home, while Flexitime is an arrangement where an employee starts and ends the workday outside the “normal” working hours.

“Individuals continue to work the standard 40-hour work week, and receive full-time income and benefits,” says Mark Driscoll, leader, human capital, PwC India.

Those in favour of working from home argue that the practice gives employees, especially women, the opportunity to work and look after the family. Studies have shown that this jacks up productivity, makes employees happy and leads to lower attrition rates. And, of course, it cuts a company’s infrastructure costs.

“At PwC we believe that flexible working arrangements are alternatives that assist employees in balancing work and personal commitments while meeting business needs and objectives,” Driscoll stresses.

Sangeeta Lala, senior vice-president and co-founder, Teamlease Services, a Bangalore-based staffing firm, believes that women professionals in India don’t seek work from home options on a priority basis. “Flexi-work ranks below job role, salary, proximity to home, work load and bonus on the checklist,” she adds.

Those who don’t believe in flexi-hours hold that they hamper employees from performing to capacity, take away the opportunity to network or exchange ideas or scale up the career ladder. Bosses are often left wondering whether the employee is taking a power nap or picking her children from school during work hours. “The practice only works in jobs where there is a clear output requirement,” Lala says.

But those who are in favour say that it gives women the opportunity to work professionally, as well as take care of domestic and familial needs. “I work so much better from home,” says a media group employee who often edits from home. “At home, the telephones don’t ring constantly, visitors don’t keep streaming in and colleagues don’t tempt you with coffee and gossip,” she says.

Many organisations encourage women to work from home to retain staff. Chennai-based consulting firm Avtar Career Creators (ACC) conducted a survey in 2005 which found that 18 per cent of all attrition in Indian industry was caused by women who stepped off the career track, never to return. “This totalled around 50,000 women quitting their careers every year in the major metros,” says Saundarya Rajesh, founder, ACC, which specialises in providing flexible work choices to career women.

Started in 2000, ACC has a network of 26,000 professionally qualified women. In the last five years, the company claims to have created second career and flexi-working opportunities for 3,500 women. Its clients include Goldman Sachs, PepsiCo, Unilever, Heinz, Standard Chartered Bank, Google, Microsoft and Cadbury Kraft.

The Tata Second Career Internship Programme, started in 2008, also helps women who want to return to a career after a break by offering them flexible work schedules to help ease the transition process.

“There is a great deal of emphasis on flexibility as well as relevance of business projects,” says Amit Chincholikar, vice-president, management development, Tata Group HR, Mumbai. “Technology that enables telecommuting (or working from home) provides participants the flexibility so that they can balance their personal situations as well as deliver on deadlines,” he says.

Rajesh, however, feels the Indian corporate sector still has some navel gazing to do on diversity and inclusion at the workplace. “The investment made in empowering women goes waste as they often do not get the right work choices or the infrastructure to manage home responsibilities along with a career,” she says.

But it may not be long before India Inc embraces the practice of working from home or flexi-hours. For one, it’s slowly catching on everywhere. Polling firm Ipsos found that in a survey published recently almost a fifth of over 11,000 workers from 24 countries surveyed said they telecommuted “frequently”, while 7 per cent said they worked from home every day.

Another study — this one by Stanford University and the University of Beijing — found that telecommuters at a call centre in China handled calls more efficiently, took fewer breaks and were 13 per cent more productive than those who worked from office.

On the other hand, American retailers J.C. Penney found last year that a third of its headquarters’ bandwidth was taken up by employees watching YouTube in office!

This was originally published in The Telegraph

Baby blues

On September 30, a week after an all-hands meeting with Yahoo’s 14,000 employees to describe her vision for the company’s future, a heavily-pregnant Marissa Mayer checked into the private room of a hospital and delivered a baby boy, her first child with Internet investor husband Zachary Bogue. But the new CEO of Yahoo Inc couldn’t keep her thoughts away from office for long. Soon after, she set off a global storm by announcing her intention to return to work as soon as possible, “perhaps in a week or two”.

Worried mothers from across the world lambasted her decision. They said she was being crazy in putting the demands of her career before her child. They said her priorities were all wonky. “She’s not had a foot surgery, she’s birthed a tiny human being. A baby who needs stuff,” said one, adding that “there is a baby involved”. “You are not just a CEO anymore,” said an article by Allison Benedikt in online magazine Slate.

To be sure Mayer was being no trailblazer in cutting short her maternity leave. Many women have done that before, unleashing the very same sentiments of outrage. Not long ago, France’s former justice minister Rachida Dati had sparked a similar debate when she returned to frontline politics just five days after giving birth to a baby girl through Caesarean section in 2009. In 1990, Benazir Bhutto, certain that her opponents would use the interim period of her maternity leave to oust her from power, was back in office the very next day after giving birth to her second child. Bhutto later wrote about her decision with pride in her memoir, Daughter of Destiny: “It was a defining moment, especially for young women, proving that a woman could work and have a baby in the highest and most challenging leadership positions.”

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And working women cannot agree more. “The whole focus on the duration of leave is wrong; it is an individual and personal choice and not about how fast you can get back to work,” says HSBC Country Head Naina Lal Kidwai.

For Kidwai, maternity leave lasted all of six weeks, but she says the length of the leave is not as important as ensuring that the health of both mother and baby is not compromised, and this is hugely dependent on family support. She says she was lucky to have a supportive family but it is important for women not to lose sight of what they want or to give up their place at the high table just because they know that with a baby they have a life transition situation. “Your work life is not a seasonal thing. It is a long-term story,” she says.

Many women are going all out to find that balance between career ambition and family goals even if that means taking their baby along with them to office. “I went to the hospital with my laptop and within weeks I was back in office,” says Sairee Chahal, co-founder of, a connecting point for women professionals and corporations. But something must give and she says, “between the baby and her start-up, there was no time for anything else and it may be the same for Marissa”.

But while Mayer’s career may be an inspiration for women with or without the focus on her maternity, concerns about the baby’s health resulting from her lightening-fast return to work may be exaggerated. Babies have a limited requirement in the initial months — they need food, a constant caregiver, who could be the mother, the grandmother or a trained nanny, and they are set for their infant life, says Prabha Chandra, professor of psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore.

“In the CEO lady’s [Mayer] case, I don’t think the baby’s health will be affected in any way by her quick return to office. She will have all the means to get all the support she needs to ensure her child’s wellbeing,” she says.

The problems arise for women from lower-income groups, those who work in rich households and enable white collar moms to get right back into work. Children in such households are often tossed around a number of caregivers in the absence of the mother. But more may not be merrier in the case of infants. Vidya Gupta, senior consultant at Apollo Hospitals, says, “In an ideal situation babies should not have more than two to three people to look after them as chances of developing infections and catching cold and cough are much higher if there are too many caregivers.” This lack of a permanent fixture which babies can identify as the caregiver can also put them at risk of developing attachment disorders, Chandra adds.

Such babies withdraw into their own shell becoming less responsive to the environment. They often have difficulty sleeping or feeding. They also tend to become shy and cranky in the company of strangers, often have muted response to stimulation and may not break into a smile or giggle as those babies who are brought up by a secure caregiver.

Attachment disorders, however, need not always stem from the lack of a steady caregiver. Sometimes separation anxiety shows up in infants when the mother returns to work after a three-month maternity break. Chandra says it usually takes infants a week to 15 days to adapt to a new person around them; if the child continues to cry for weeks after the mother’s return to work then it is a sign of a problem. A mother can find out if her baby feels separation anxiety if he/she sleeps or cries too much or doesn’t adjust to a change in routine.

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Chandra, who runs Perinatal Psychiatry Clinic, a mother-infant counselling centre at Nimhans (the only one in Asia), says awareness of mother-infant problems is still very low in the country, even though the number of young mothers coming to the centre with bonding issues is gradually growing.

Thankfully, attachment issues that arise during infancy are rarely lifelong. “Babies are, surprisingly, very resilient and as they grow older they overcome the initial glitches of life,” says Chandra.

However, she cautions, sometimes the disorder may carry on for life. Babies who have suffered maltreatment and abuse at the hands of their caregivers or had to deal with insecure childhood in the absence of the mother, may become easy prey to anxiety and depression later in life when faced with something even as common as bullying. But babies growing up with working mothers aren’t any less attached to the mother than the caregiver. As they grow up, they expand their circle and include the mother as well in their group, adds Chandra.

Another aspect of childhood that gets affected in the mother’s absence is breastfeeding. Research has proven that mother’s milk stands far above any top feed or outside milk in terms of nutritional value. Among other advantages, it adds to the child’s immunity, helps in better mother-child bonding and comforts the child by letting them tune in to the mother’s heartbeat, a sound they are accustomed to from the womb. What’s more, babies fed on mother’s milk have slim chance of becoming obese and they grow the best, says Gupta of Apollo.

For the mother on the other hand, life after an early return to work isn’t smooth either. “They have the highest chance of developing depression in the first one year of giving birth and it only gets compounded if an early return to work is combined with poor support from the spouse and tremendous work pressure,” says Chandra. Guilt of having left the baby at home and not being able to give enough time may also push mothers over the edge.

However, there has been no conclusive study to gauge the psychological, health or any other impact of mother-infant separation in early childhood, says Chandra.

The piece was published in Business Standard