In August this year, Axis Bank launched a new hiring initiative, Gig-A-Opportunities, under which it offered full-time job seekers a hybrid workplace. Employees can largely work from home and will have to come to office twice a week. Gig-A-Opportunities does not cover consumer-facing roles but has openings in mainstream functions such as audit, compliance, marketing and human resources.
Given the job losses over the past few months due to the pandemic, it's not surprising that it got 30,000 applications in a week. Interestingly, 46 per cent applicants were women who have taken a career break. "The hybrid workplace model encouraged women to get back to professional life. We have got applications from women who were in corporate roles and had to quit because of motherhood. The initiative is helping us accelerate our diversity agenda," says Rajkamal Vempati, Chief Human Resources Officer, Axis Bank.
The bank also has an initiative, Gigas, offering short-term assignments. The oldest applicant is a 60-year-old woman. "She told us that after retirement, she has been pursuing art for her soul and now needs a job to soothe her mind," says Vempati.
The pandemic has changed the way India Inc. functions. Sprawling workplaces and bustling offices where people worked long hours are now things of the past. The lockdown has forced organisations to let employees convert homes into offices, while face-to-face meetings have been replaced by virtual meetings on platforms such as Zoom, Cisco Webex, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams. Even crucial board meetings and annual general meetings of companies have moved to the virtual space. The big realisation is that flexible working hours and work from home (WFH) don't hamper productivity. "The myth that working from home impacts productivity has been razed to the ground, and this is a boon for women employees," says Saundarya Rajesh, MD, Avtar, a diversity and inclusion enabling firm.
Ironically, more women than men lost jobs in the pandemic as sectors such as hospitality, retail and other service-led industries, which hire more women, came to a standstill. Around 17 per cent men lost their jobs, says an Avtar report. The figure for women is higher at 23 per cent, it says.
The Covid crisis is an opportunity for many companies to increase their diversity quotient. In India, around 10 million people can work remotely, says HR services firm CIEL, and for these jobs, companies have started reviewing the number of work-from-office roles. "Women typically leave the talent pool for maternity and child care. Even after they are done with it, most hesitate to get back to formal work. As WFH becomes the norm, we will see many women re-skill and return to work and stay in the workforce much longer than in pre-Covid days," says Aditya Mishra, CEO, CIEL.
Audit and consulting major Deloitte recently launched an initiative to hire former women employees. "We got in touch with thousands of former colleagues and told them that they have an opportunity to get back to work. We have always allowed WFH, given employees flexibility to work four hours a day, five days a week, but Covid has enabled us to pursue these initiatives with renewed vigour," says S.V. Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India.
Similarly, SAP India Labs is in the process of rolling out a shared work concept where a managerial role can be shared by two people. "For the first part of the day, one person will do the work, and in the second, the other will take over. Women who aspire to get into those kinds of leadership positions don't have to think that they cannot do that just because they work part-time. It offers women a great chance to take leadership roles as they progress through the various grades in their career," says Sindhu Gangadharan, SVP and MD, SAP Labs India. A part-time shared role will obviously mean lower compensation but Gangadharan believes it will add significantly to the company's diversity quotient. SAP Labs India has committed itself to giving 30 per cent leadership posts to women by 2022 from the current 28 per cent.
Zee Entertainment, meanwhile, is aiming for a 50:50 male-female ratio by 2024, from the current 78:22 (22 per cent women). Animesh Kumar, Chief People Officer, Zee Entertainment, says Covid has played the role of a catalyst in their diversity agenda. The media and entertainment conglomerate has hired 100 trainees across functions in the past few months, 64 per cent being women. "The idea is that every year, if we hire a disproportionate number of women, it will, on a structural basis, solve the problem," says Kumar.
Kumar says Zee wants to be a gender blind organisation and for that it is putting together processes that will reduce unconscious biases in hiring. Apart from the regular interview, it has put together a host of psychometric and functional testing mechanisms independent of the interviewers score. "All interviewers have unconscious biases. The most common is that women are not suitable for sales roles. You reduce the bias the moment you bring in these functional and aptitude tests," he says.
Amazon India Director of HR, Deepti Varma, says the new normal presents an opportunity to welcome women on a career break back to the corporate world with a gradual ramp-up that can help women establish the right flexibility. "In 2018, we launched Rekindle, an initiative to hire women employees who are on a career break in various tech and non-tech roles. The pilot saw some success and there were also some learnings, based on which we re-launched Rekindle 2.0 in 2020. Through this initiative, we have been providing opportunities to support women who intend to professionally re-integrate and recommence their job in the new normal world."
Rajesh Uppal, Senior Executive Director (HR & IT), Maruti Suzuki, also believes that organisations should be gender blind. "We need best talent. When we select a candidate, we have no gender bias." The country doesn't produce as many woman mechanical engineers as the company would like to hire and that is the reason for the low 7.3 per cent women in its workforce. "Covid has proved that WFH or work from anywhere is effective and we are in the process of institutionalising it. The WFH flexibility will surely accelerate diversity in Maruti Suzuki," says Uppal.
Beauty products company L'Oreal had launched Career 2.0 to hire women employees who had taken a break. The initiative wasn't a great success till the pandemic made WFH and flexible working a norm. The Career 2.0 initiative, says Roshni Wadhwa, Director, Human Resources, has suddenly gathered momentum. "There is a lot of empowerment and trust that has developed between managers and employees. Earlier, we used to allow our employees to WFH only a few days in a month, but now we plan to extend WFH days considerably."
Small Town Advantage
A large number of applicants under Axis Bank's Gig-A-Opportunities initiative were women in Tier-II and Tier-III cities. There was reverse migration among white-collared employees too during the lockdown. This ensured availability of a large talent base in small towns. Rajesh of Avtar says 78 lakh women are on a break and waiting to get back to work, of which 70 per cent are in Tier-II and Tier-III towns. These are IT professionals, digital marketers as well as artificial intelligence programmers.
Vempati of Axis Bank says Covid has made her organisation location agnostic. "We are looking at hiring people in Assam. They will work from their homes for a role based in a metro."
SAP Labs, says Gangadharan, is trying to hire not just women but men too from Tier-II and Tier-III towns. "It is a great opportunity for women to get back to work. Organisations like ours benefit from this extended talent pool."
Small town India does have a talent mine, agrees Anjali Bansal, Founder, Avaana Capital. One of her investee company, Coverfox, which is into insurance distribution, has started reaching out to women in Tier-II and Tier-III towns to become their agents.
If companies re-hire women employees or hire women who are on a break in small town India, they will have to invest on re-skilling them. As Bansal of Avaana puts it, "Companies need to give them digital training as well as training in communication and other skills so that they are able to cope with the changing times and more, importantly, don't become irrelevant if another pandemic hits us."
Google India recently launched DigiPivot, a programme to help more women return to work by developing their leadership and digital marketing skills. "We want to do our part to not only offer attractive jobs for women in tech but for them to develop skills that are vital in the modern digital world. We see positive results from this initiative and are looking at how we can scale up this programme and reach more women in India and beyond," says Prriti Narain, Market HR Leader, Google India.
Similarly, Deloitte is offering programmes through a platform called Cura where it seeks to re-skill employees returning to work. "This is in order to help them adjust well into the workforce. We also give them mentors and buddies," says Nathan.
Does WFH Really Help?
Though companies are becoming more and more open to institutionalising WFH, which is a positive for women seeking flexibility, in reality, a significantly higher number of women employees are eager to get back to work after the lockdown than men. The lockdown has put more pressure on women than men as they are expected to take care of domestic chores along with their profession. "There is disproportionate domestic workload on women. Companies may have changed, but society hasn't," says Bansal of Avaana Capital.
Shefali Kohli, Group Head (Rewards, Diversity and People Productivity), Godrej Industries and Associate Companies, says many of her women colleagues are asking for a sabbatical as they are finding it difficult to balance their profession with domestic chores. "I am figuring out if I can offer them a temporary furlough or allow them to work four hours a day."
WFH has its challenges and it is an organisation's responsibility to help a woman employee, says Pallavi Shroff, Managing Partner, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. "My understanding is that people want to come back to the workplace to meet people, friends and co-workers. There is no substitute for human contact. People are missing that as today WFH is also accompanied by isolation. Together, the two are indeed very challenging. WFH requires a lot of planning and discipline, not only by the individual but also by other members of the family, which can be challenging."
Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has, in the last decade, taken the proportion of women employees from 18 per cent to 42 per cent. It intends to reach 50 per cent. One of its major concerns was impact on diversity efforts because of Covid. "Women have huge responsibilities, they have to support large families, help kids with schooling, and this is going to continue for a while. However, household chores can't become a deterrent for their work either. Therefore, we asked leaders to be empathic towards women colleagues. Our leaders are trying to find out what is it that a woman employee in his/her team is going through and have the flexibility and openness to talk to them and find out how things can be done differently," says Anuradha Razdan, Executive Director (Human Resources), HUL. Women employees also fear that WFH will take them away from the spotlight. "Many women feel they will lose their voice if they WFH," says Rajesh of Avtar.
If 10 million Indians can WFH going forward, will it eliminate gender pay disparity? While a large section of the industry believes it will, Nathan of Deloitte says there is no link between WFH and pay. "Organisations need to consciously focus on reducing pay gap by consistently working on inclusion and skilling their women employees."
Bansal is not too sure if WFH will reduce pay disparity. "We thought WFH will make life easier for women, but it hasn't, given their larger share of domestic responsibilities. We must be careful that since WFH comes with distractions for women, productivity is not perceived to be lower."
"We analyse our compensation data every year to make sure that we don't have gender pay disparity. WFH being more acceptable in the future will ensure more career options and opportunities to grow, so we should address gender pay issues in industries where it exists," Arif Aziz, CHRO, Diageo India.
WFH & Attrition
Will WFH reduce attrition among women? Will it increase India Inc.'s diversity quotient, which is at 30-31 per cent? "There is a trend of balanced households, there are a lot of men getting involved in household chores. If they do this for five-seven months more, it will be a trend that stays. This will have a powerful impact on women themselves, as earlier they were not sure if they could WFH," says Razdan of HUL.
A lot depends on change in societal mindsets too. The men have to get involved in domestic chores as much as women, points out R. Mahalakshmi, Head, India HR, Mondelez. She says her organisation has set four ground rules - digital detox, self-care, do-nothing days and choosing own time of starting and ending work. "One big sound that we heard was blurring of work days and holidays. We ensured that both women and men set time for digital detox which they highlight to the rest of the organisation so that nobody disturbs them during that time. We have also allowed them to set days when they wish to not work."
On whether the new WFH norms will improve gender diversity at India Inc., Razdan of HUL says it is doable, but requires determination and commitment from leadership teams. "If we could reach 42 per cent in a decade, it is indeed possible. But one needs to drive a mindset change. It is a holistic change programme and not really connected with Covid or WFH."
Rajesh of Avtar wants companies to use the WFH norm and accelerate their diversity agenda. "Even if we take half the 78 lakh women who are currently on a hiatus, we are talking of 27 per cent growth in the countrys GDP. When women earn, they will spend more, which will help demand and consumption."
Avtars recent gender diversity report says if corporations take their gender diversity agenda seriously, one can expect women participation in the workforce rise to 50 per cent by 2027. The pandemic has indeed managed to speed up the diversity agenda across India Inc.