Look Ma, No clock

More firms are adopting flexible work hours to secure talent and improve productivity.

Saumya Bhattacharya        Print Edition: February 2011

At the recent Nasscom Diversity and Inclusivity Summit 2010 in Bengaluru, a worried audience from the tech and back-office businesses sat with a set of statistics. Women in the industry accounted for more than 30 per cent of the workforce but less than 4 per cent in leadership (CEO and very senior) roles. Where do women disappear along the way? Can flexible working hours help retain women in middle and senior leadership roles, the industry asked. Well, there is some good news and some bad news.

First, the good news. In a survey of 3,300 employees across the globe in October 2010, consultancy firm Bain & Company found that effective implementation of a flexible work model can increase the retention of women by 40 per cent and even of men by 25 per cent. Further, 87 per cent of women and 74 per cent of men surveyed expressed an interest in using flexible job options.

But the bad news is that just 44 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men surveyed actually used such work options. The lesson: Unless implemented effectively, flexi work options do not succeed. Says Bain partner Julie Coffman: "The biggest reason given for not taking advantage of these models is fear of losing the respect of one's supervisor and/or peers."


Rashmi Jalan, 38
Senior VP, Risk Analysis Unit, HSBC India
Works the first half of the day for half pay and manages a team of seven.
The Bain survey was global, but we take a look at the nuts and bolts of flexi work in India. Two years ago, when HSBC India rolled out flexi-work options for its employees, among the first to opt for the initiative was Rashmi Jalan, now senior vice-president of the Risk Analysis Unit. She had her second child in November 2007 and was desperate for a work arrangement that would have kept her career going and at the same time allowed her to pay attention to her two sons.

OPTIONS GALORE

Jalan chose the half work, half pay arrangement, or part-time work, where employees are expected to work four-and-a-half hours a day and work timings depend on the type of job. The other two options offered by HSBC included staggered hours and telecommuting.

In the staggered work arrangement, an employee has to put in nine hours of work with mandatory presence during core business hours, but has the flexibility to determine the start and end of his workday. In the telecommuting option, an employee is allowed to carry out his or her responsibilities from outside office using electronic access, but is expected to attend all scheduled meetings.


Vineeta Yadav, 33
Head, Learning and Talent Management, Godrej Industries
Flexible timings attracted her to the job. Now she offers this option as a carrot while recruiting.
"Initially, I had apprehensions that people would think I was looking at the job as a filler. But that has not happened," says Jalan. Part of the credit goes to HSBC, which got down to changing the mindset of its employees soon after launching the programme. "We realised early on in our implementation journey that frequent communication of policy, leadership support and showcasing of success stories will help achieve our objectives," says HR head Vikram Tandon.

It was a challenge, nonetheless. When the bank unveiled the policy in the summer of 2008, it simultaneously launched workshops for its managers and employees. These were facilitated by consultants from IBM, who had extensive experience in this area and shared it with the HSBC employees.

The workshops were organised in all regions and each event was flagged off by a senior manager, demonstrating commitment from the leadership team.

Later, HSBC launched a success story series, which showcased every month the experiences of staff who had opted for flexi work arrangements. Alongside, the profiles of managers who had been successful in driving flexi work in their teams began to be published. The rationale for this was to highlight the importance of supervisor support in making teams look for creative ways of doing their jobs to enhance productivity levels.

 

Arindam Lahiri, 38
VP, Training, DLF Pramerica India
He does not think that taking advantage of flexi work arrangements makes it harder for someone to be promoted.
A WAY OF LIFE

Flexi work is a way of life for the employees at IBM India. When Bengaluru-based Chitra Iyengar, 37, decided to adopt a child in 2006, she first availed of maternity leave, but became serious about flexi work after an encounter with her manager, who said, "I do not care whether you sit in the park or at home. I am concerned with your deliverables." IBM is well known for its work culture, where employees work from remote locations and teams are distributed in different time zones.

For Iyengar, it was liberating to realise that work did not mean a place she went to, but something that she did. She tried different combinations of flexi work: IBM has six 'flavours', including customised timing and telecommuting. Sometimes Iyengar goes to office only in the first half of a week and sometimes she puts in three days a week depending on the work and her personal needs. She often avails of the day-care facilities provided by IBM for her four-year-old son, right across her office.

 
TOP CONCERNS OF EMPLOYEES

  • Loss of respect by supervisors.
  • Loss of respect by peers.
  • Negative reaction from a client or a customer.
  • Anxiety and guilt about not working as hard.
  • Perceived by colleagues as favouritism.
  • Colleagues will not respect the reason for using flexi work.
Source: Bain & Co.'s 'Flexible Work Models' survey of 3,300 employees globally
For Iyengar, a career-oriented person who loves to work, it took a lot of effort to adjust to working from home. "I had several questions and a whole lot of talking with my mentors and seniors," she says. "Flexi work is a definite enabler in my life… my husband is a neurosurgeon and he has to be a call away anyway."

When Iyengar was grappling with issues thrown up by flexi work, the organisation, too, was dealing with similar concerns. Says Kalpana Veeraraghavan, IBM's India diversity manager: "Flexibility is a double-edged sword. It needs to be managed efficiently." Veeraraghavan should know. Her company has been among the first movers globally to put in place 'work-life integration'. In India, it started in 2000.

THE MINDSET HURDLE

Veeraraghavan's big challenge is overcoming the mindset about flexi work in India as it entails measuring output by deliverables and not by face-time. As a culture, India is not used to it. Managers in companies are taught to handle potential issues such as 'I am concerned that if I cannot see my employees, I will not know whether they are working or not'; 'Shouldn't we approve flexi work arrangements for top performers only?' or 'Will flexible work from home come in the way of teamwork, which our organisation emphasises on....?' And, finally, an issue that finds resonance among employees considering flexible work: will taking advantage of flexi work arrangements make it harder for someone to be promoted?

"Not at all," says Arindam Lahiri, vice-president of training at DLF Pramerica India, an insurance firm. For close to two years, Lahiri has been working flexi hours due to health reasons-he suffers from high blood pressure and once fainted in office. A resident of south Delhi, he hates going to Gurgaon to work during the rush hour. So he reaches office by 8.30 a.m. and leaves by 5.30 p.m. When he opted for flexi work, he did have concerns.


Chitra Iyengar, 37
Senior Workforce Manager, IBM India
Works with a global team and uses different combinations like half day at work or three days a week at work.
"My CEO comes in at 8 in the morning and leaves at around 5.30 p.m. I thought that if they could manage bigger roles so efficiently, so could I." But Kapil Mehta, Lahiri's chief executive officer, does not see any problem here. Flexi work hours include some core work hours when the employee is expected to be in office. If one is working from home, there is a stipulated number of days (two) when an employee can avail of this option.

"Employees continue to be a part of important mainstream projects and are able to interact with colleagues on a regular basis," says Mehta. Still, DLF Pramerica and Lahiri may be an exception. Many employees say that the fear of 'out of sight, out of mind' dissuades them from opting for flexi work, even when the option is available.

"You do need to rationalise your expectations from the workplace," says one of them. Srikanth Karra, director of HR at HP India, also cites another challenge. "The need for working with a team is critical in a managerial role. An individual in a managerial or leadership position who opts for flexi work may find this aspect challenging," he says. HP has had flexi work options in place for the past two decades.


COFFMAN SPEAK

How companies can offer flexi work
  • Understand your employees. Look for specific segments and validate their priorities and needs.
  • Design your menu of flexible offerings to match the identified priorities of prospective employees.
  • Over-invest to ensure senior leadership provides visible support for this effort.
  • Deploy resources to coach both employees (who will be using flexible models) and their supervisors.
  • Choose best practices and ingrain them into the day-to-day cadence.
  • Share success stories in a vocal and visible way to demonstrate that individuals using these models continue to progress in their careers.
Julie Coffman
Partner at Bain & Co. and
Chair of Bain's Global Women's Leadership Council
Where flexi work helps is in the area of gender diversity, says Karra. Close to 30 per cent of HP's workforce and 15 per cent of its managerial cadre are women. "We have a clear objective of improving gender diversity and flexi work is an important instrument," says Karra.

Another company that has its talent managers losing sleep over lack of women is Godrej Industries, where men constitute 92 per cent of the white-collar workforce. The company is now actively making its flexi work options a part of its talent acquisition and retention strategy. Godrej offers two options: flexibility in timings for coming to work and leaving as long as one clocks 42.5 hours every week, and part-time work since 2009, in which the salary varies with the hours clocked.

ATTRACTING TALENT

Vineeta Yadav, head of learning and talent management at Godrej Industries, who also avails of the flexi work option, uses it to attract work talent. "When we speak to potential employees, we talk about the option of flexi work all the time." Recently, when Yadav mentioned the concept to a potential woman candidate at a senior level, it pleasantly surprised her and eventually proved to be the clincher in getting her aboard. In fact, the flexi work policy at Godrej was one of the reasons that attracted Yadav to the company two years ago.

Godrej Industries has gone a step ahead and told its recruitment consultants that the group is open to and encourages candidates who have taken a break. "We do not want to lose out on the huge talent pool just because women have taken a break," says Yadav. While Yadav is looking to set right the dismal gender diversity, her company and others like them would do well to pay heed to what Bain's Coffman prescribes. "There are many types of flexible working models… and, no, we absolutely do not believe one size fits all." There are distinct segments of employees who have different needs and priorities and, hence different models will appeal to specific segments. Flexi work champions, take note.

Courtesy: Business Today

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