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Women at the new workplace: WFH to Hybrid models – post-pandemic world to witness radical reforms

February 21, 2022

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This October, Leena M came back to India after spending five years in Alberta, Canada. A mother of two boys (6 and 3 years old), Leena is in no rush to pick up a job in Mumbai where she and her husband, who works in a multinational firm and recently got transferred to India, plan to settle for good.

“First, I will find a caretaker for my boys and maybe a flexible work schedule as my family needs considerable care giving,” says the 38-year-old software engineer, who does not wish to reveal her last name.

Ever since the pandemic began in March last year, Leena has been juggling work and child-care in Alberta while she was working as a technology analyst. The only solution to a happy family life was to quit her job. “Childcare responsibilities have always been a personal choice. But in a career spanning eight years, promotions and hikes took a back seat on account of my gender, particularly after becoming a mother in 2015,” she says.

Many women like Leena opt for a flexible work arrangement so that they can perform a dual role or exit the workforce entirely to take care of the family. But the last two years saw uncertainty in career choices, making many choose hybrid models. This was either because they were burned out due to the pandemic and considered dropping out of the workforce, or work from home (WFH) proved stable in terms of saving office rentals and less commuting, encouraging many to opt for this work mode on a permanent basis.

“The almost overnight switch to a full-time WFH setup was more challenging for women professionals than men and to deal with the extra burden of managing the household and fulfilling professional responsibilities. Women are now vocal about their preference of a hybrid work model that provides them the right office infrastructure, and one that is also much closer to home, allowing them to cut down on their daily commute and save both time and money and ensure a better work-life balance,” says Harsh Lambah, country manager India, vice president sales – South Asia, IWG, a flexible workspace platform. He feels that the demand for a hybrid work model will increase and gain permanency as more women opt for flexible solutions.

In 2020, stress and burnout affected more people with multiple impacts for the post-pandemic world of work. All this has continued in the current year. A recent report by LinkedIn says more than half of India’s (55%) employed professionals feel stressed at work as wellbeing measures become a luxury for many.

The report also shared primary reasons for work stress for employed professionals cited ‘balancing work with personal needs’ (34 %), ‘not making enough money’ (32%), and ‘slow career advancement’ (25%) as the top three stressors at work. Amid such stressful times, one in three professionals is seen drawing optimism from the availability of jobs (36%) and improved control over expenses (30%) in today’s recovering, yet competitive marketplace. The survey is based on the responses of 3,881 professionals from July 31 to September 24.

This year, multinational professional services firm Deloitte launched ‘Women @ Work: A Global Outlook report’, which shows women are more stressed and pessimistic about their careers than before the pandemic. While women have taken on more responsibilities at home and at work while not receiving adequate support from their employers, over 80% of surveyed women indicate that their workload at work has increased as a result of the pandemic. Up to 66% of women report having the greatest responsibilities for home tasks and more than half of those with children say they handle the majority of childcare duties. The mounting responsibilities are taking a clear toll on their physical health, mental wellbeing, and career ambitions.

The right balance

Hybrid working has enabled employees to work from corporate offices, homes, or alternate places like coffee shops and co-working spaces and find time for personal chores. Hyderabad-based Uma Iyer found work-life balance in WFH. After co-founding a creative agency this year, the marketing communications professional finds time for family and save miscellaneous expenditures and be financially independent. “Sometimes when work is crazy, my children (14-year-old daughter and a year-old cat) keep me sane. When my children drive me up the wall, writing helps. When both decide to go nuts, permaculture keeps me grounded. After all, balance is about how you prioritise, plan and play,” says Iyer.

It also ensures more income into the household leading to financial inclusion and independence. “Financial independence is important as you feel responsible, and it makes me capable of taking my own decisions,” agrees Iyer.

Likewise, Gurugram-based artist and designer Astha Bhatnagar spends the day with her son. “Whatever I earn as a professional is used in paying for my son’s extra-curricular activities like sports and hobby classes. I am also able to manage household and travel expenses. My husband and I also keep a share to pay off our EMIs and other loans. This way, I can contribute financially while also doing what I love,” she says.

While women feel that the need to be independent is the key to right balance, human resources (HR) officials believe they are more likely to continue and sustain WFH in the times to come as compared to men. “The WFH scenario has been beneficial for many women across industries and that’s why our female employees have the flexibility, support systems and resources to lead fulfilling careers. This was already the case prior to the pandemic where the teams operated in hybrid set up,” says Deepti Varma, HR leader – APACME Corporate & Consumer, Amazon India.

In September, accounting and consulting firm PwC announced it will allow all its 40,000 US client services employees to work virtually and live anywhere they want in perpetuity, making it one of the biggest employers to embrace permanent remote work. The policy is a departure from the accounting industry’s rigid attitudes, known for encouraging people to put in late nights at the office. Other major accounting firms such as Deloitte and KPMG have also been giving employees more choice to work remotely in the face of the pandemic.

PwC’s deputy people leader Yolanda Seals-Coffield said in a report this year that PwC employees who choose to work virtually would have to come to the office a maximum of three days a month for in-person appointments such as critical team meetings, client visits and learning sessions. “We have learned through the pandemic, and working virtually, as we think about the evolution of flexibility, is a natural next step,” says Seals-Coffield, adding: “If you are an employee in good standing, are in client services, and want to work virtually, you can full stop.”

But a contrasting forecast by Deloitte India sees a steady rise in women participation in the workforce over the years. “More and more women are entering the workforce now due to better recruitment drives, better gender-neutral policies, benefits, equal pay parity, flexible working arrangements, etc. This trend is likely to continue, and we will see more organisations across industries to embrace gender balancing initiatives,” says Mohinish Sinha, Partner, Deloitte India.
“WFH arrangements reduce the stress of commuting and give extra time for wellbeing. But in the coming years, we expect more women to join the workforce given the efforts from organisations on return to work, re-skilling and childcare facilities, and the drive to equal women representation at all levels and departments of the organisation,” adds Sinha.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) at the trainee level has recruited between 38% and 45% women in the last three years. To be inclusive, their programmes, policies and processes look beyond hiring to include promotions, progression, and access to leadership opportunities. The impact is reflected with over 185,000 women associates, TCS continues to rank among the largest employers of women.

Similarly, multinational groceries and general merchandise retailer Tesco through its internal survey this year found 84% of the women workforce feels they are supported and enabled well to return from a career break through due to ever-evolving policies and benefits. About 89% of the women workforce feel they are given enough support through needed infrastructure to enable individuals to bring their best self to work. “Hybrid working turning into more of a reality in the future, flexi work models will surely encourage more women to come back to the corporate world,” says Somnath Baishya, people director – Tesco Business Services & Tesco Bengaluru.

In 2018, Amazon launched ‘rekindle’, an initiative to provide a launch pad to women who have taken a break in their careers due to any circumstances. It provides opportunities and support women to professionally re-integrate themselves and resume their corporate career. Structured on-boarding, focused mentoring, flexible work options and on-the-job learning are key elements to help potential candidates in ramping up.

Companies are willing to introduce work cultures where women feel valued and supported. For example, cloud computing and virtualisation technology company VMware regularly initiates training courses and policies on maternal leave, employee wellbeing, paid pandemic leaves or encourage women to upskill and return to work through VMinclusion Taara, a programme designed to help women in India return to a career in technology and upskill 15,000 women in India, uplift their careers for growth and impact, by providing free technical education and certification courses on digital business transformation technologies. “Through Anywhere Workspace portfolio of solutions, which is also extended to employees, women are empowered to work in any location, across any network and device, and with no trade-offs when it comes to employee productivity,” says Roopa Raj, global head of engineering- enterprise saas transformation, VMware, adding that after close to two years of working from home, VMware supports the hybrid model that fits the requirements of every employee.

Similarly, remote working offers additional flexibility to employees across the board, and it will be an important element in the future of work. “The diminishing geographical barriers made us launch a unique initiative Sakhi Drishtikon last year,” says Sarika Naik, chairperson, diversity—India, Capgemini, a technology services and consulting company, adding that this is designed to hire and train talented women engineers from weak economic backgrounds who face location mobility challenges thereby bringing them into the mainstream workforce.

Similarly, Srinivas R Katkoor, director- human resources, SAS India, business analytics software and services, feels the need to invest time in upskilling, flexible work policies, emphasis on mental wellbeing can ensure women employees get the right learning environment. “The recognition and rewards are a few of the diverse offerings for women employees,” says Katkoor.

Future prospect

Pandemic-related child-care struggles pushed millions of women in the US out of the workforce and so did burnout in 2020. A McKinsey & Co report conducted in partnership with LeanIn.Org this year in September surveyed 65,000 workers across 423 organisations in America to find one-third of women considering scaling back their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. Women were likely to report experiencing burnout than men—a gap that’s widened in the last year, too.

However, the US added more than half a million jobs in October, yet the share of people working is far behind pre-pandemic figures. Labour Secretary Marty Walsh in a CBS November 2021 news report pointed out some 3.8 million people in the US had not been able to come back to the workforce because of Covid-19. He stated that the new workplace safety standards could help bring more women to the workforce.

The future of work 2022 report by PwC states by the year 2022, there will be a radical change in business models and companies will need to create sophisticated people measurement techniques to control performance and increase importance of social capital and relationships as the drivers of business success. It also states that the boundary between work and personal life must disappear as companies assume greater responsibility for the social welfare of their employees.

In contradiction to the above statement, a July 2021 report by International Labour Organization (ILO) states the inequalities between women and men in the world of work that have been exacerbated during the pandemic will persist soon. A policy brief by ILO also finds there will be 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared to 2019, while men’s employment will have recovered to 2019 levels. Even though the projected job growth in 2021 for women exceeds that of men, it will be insufficient to bring women back to pre-pandemic employment levels.

Globally, between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2%, representing a drop of 54 million jobs, while men’s employment declined by 3 %, or 60 million jobs. In Asia and the Pacific, the pandemic led women’s employment to decrease by 3.8 %, compared to a decline of 2.9% for men.

However, there are many schemes launched by the government of India such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, UJJWALA Yojana, One Stop Centre Scheme to empower women, yet there is a long way to cover the 79% of the women still out of the labour force. With a labour force participation rate of 21%, the working women in India are half of the global average of 47%. Studies show India could add $770 billion to its GDP by 2025 by giving equal opportunities to women, stated Rao Inderjit Singh, MoS (independent charge) for statistics & programme implementation, planning and corporate affairs, at an ASSOCHAM event in October this year.

“We are witnessing a ‘New India’ with various initiatives taken to enable women-owned businesses across the country. NITI Aayog’s Women Entrepreneurship Platform is one initiative providing an ecosystem for upcoming young women entrepreneurs. ‘Technology, Data and Innovation’ are the key enablers and drivers of growth. The Sustainable Development Goals empower women to achieve gender equality and give equal rights to economic resources, and access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national law,” said Singh.

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