women professionals

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

After the break

Corporate and urban India is home to nearly 100 million working women. Out of these, almost 70% take a career break due to various reasons. According to some estimates, there are almost 30 million women in urban India who wish to renter the workforce and build a career. Most of them feel ill-equipped and ill-supported to start again.

Clearly, the work-life choices that women have to make are not the same as men do. While the sociological aspect of the issue can be debated, the need to reconcile and respect the difference in choices exists. Preparing women for second careers means overcoming internal and external barriers. Internal ones include motivation, confidence, spouse support, family issues while external ones are flexible work opportunities, workplace resistance, mentoring/peer support.

Enabling environment

If comebacks are second careers, then they do need a certain amount of career support and induction. Psychologically, fresh career decisions are easy to make and unbridled. Second careers are harder, owing to uniqueness of situations and choices one has to make. The idea of investing in making a professional comeback is new to India.

Investment in support systems: A culture of investing in support systems — whether institutional or at  personal level — will help address a lot of micro issues that need to be addressed. Support systems may include care-giving infrastructure, tele-commuting support, small office, home office (SOHO) set-ups amongst others. A social investment in community care and support will also aid the cause.

 Corporate perspective

“There is a clear discontinuity on the work front in terms of consistency, commitment and ability to manage choices. The need to cultivate a clear perspective on choices made and supporting those choices can enhance (women’s) longevity in the workforce,” says Rakesh Shukla, managing director, The Writers Block, a technical communication firm that employs women in majority and often prefers to hire back-to-work women professionals. He adds that there is a perception that women are not committed to their careers. Therefore, companies display reluctance in hiring women after a break. If there were initiatives that help bridge the gaps of perception and reality, corporates would surely be more welcoming to women.

“Out of an average MBA batch of 100, there are 20-30% women, even lesser in engineering colleges. After a period of 5-8 years, less than 15% remain in the workforce. Women are very committed workers but I am not sure they are committed to themselves, their own (goals) and their careers. There is a need to build a culture of independence, assertiveness and preparedness — something that starts early on,” Shukla adds.

 Driving readiness

Women re-entering the workforce also implies being sensitive to their needs and choices. A change in choices or options often is sought with a need for flexibility — an imperative businesses are recognising now. The ‘workflex’ movement is steadily gaining acceptance in corporate India.

 Choices that women need to make, especially when opting out of the corporate structures, throw up a need to prepare and manage a different level of variables. There are few options that prepare women for making effective comebacks.

 Being able to make an effective comeback to work-life means managing various aspects — skills, confidence, preparedness, family support, health, support systems and an enhanced peer network.

 Readiness to stage effective comebacks also requires consistent go-to points, peer mentoring, support and relevant reskilling and training. Steps being taken in this direction include programmes like TATA Second Careers, while companies like Accenture, IBM, Shell etc are also taking initiative in this regard. The commitment will only grow stronger if there are initiatives with a long-term overarching perspective on the issue. Fleximoms 2nd Chance — Back to Work programme is one such step. However, to effectively make a long-term change, the space needs more catalysts and enablers, most significant of which are women themselves.

Priya Iyer, who made a successful comeback after attending a Back-to-Work programme organised by Fleximoms, says, “The programme was a huge learning experience. Not only did it inspire me to take the step, but also execute it. Today, I know that if one has clarity and support, one can do whatever they want to do. It does need planning and attention.”

 The bottom line is that there is value waiting to be extracted out of this talent pool. Companies that recognise this and respond to this change stand to benefit.

 This was originally published in HT Shine