MPW: What White-Collar Working Women Want from their Employers 

MPW: What White-Collar Working Women Want from their Employers 

The burnt out working mothers of the white-collar workforce want real flexibility with a clear switch-off button and childcare support. Something for firms to get right as they draft hybrid work policies

Illustration by Suman Ray Illustration by Suman Ray

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, goes the old saying. But in a pandemic-hit world, it is also attending Zoom calls while working from home, helping the older child with online classes, racing against strict deadlines at work, making sure the dishes are done, fixing up meals for the entire family and, possibly, attending to the needs of the elderly at home.

“In the short term, work from home (WFH) was a disaster for women as all physical boundaries between work and home suddenly got eradicated. It’s just too much. Working mothers are fully burnt out,” says JobsForHer Founder and CEO Neha Bagaria.

Contrary to the perceived image of WFH being a blessing in disguise for working women of the white-collar workforce because of its flexibility, it was a nightmarish balancing act, especially for working mothers. “Women are more burnt out than men because their challenges are higher. A lot of companies are offering mental health-, self-care- and mindfulness benefits for women to deal with that,” says Nirmala Menon, Founder and CEO of diversity firm Interweave Consulting. Of course their challenges are higher. Working mothers in India took on an additional 360 hours of childcare per woman during the pandemic. That’s 10 times more than the average man’s 33 additional hours, according to a study by the Center for Global Development. Add to that increased workloads, drop in job satisfaction, decline in mental well-being and additional domestic responsibilities during the pandemic, as found by consulting firm Deloitte’s global study of ‘Women @ Work’ released in May 2021, it’s no wonder then that the hand rocking that cradle may just want to hand in her resignation.

As many as 63 per cent of the working Indian women surveyed in the Deloitte study plan to leave their current employer in less than two years and 26 per cent said they want to quit working altogether. “Companies are dealing with attrition in this gender group and they are losing the diversity edge they had created,” says recruitment firm Randstad India’s Chief People Officer Anjali Raghuvanshi. The figure is definitely lesser in men for reasons like these, she adds. “Men may leave for other opportunities but women are leaving for psychological well-being and because of additional pressure.” Adds Bagaria: “The women who can afford to are saying, ‘We’ll come back when we can’. Those who can’t are just marching on, while looking for a higher paying and better job.” It also helps that there is a mad rush for technology talent in several industries, she says.

That’s bad news for a country with less than one-third participation of women in the labour force, and for firms which have set gender diversity goals for themselves.

As for the working women scouting for other opportunities, experts say it is still the mid-level employee, usually working mothers, that prefers WFH the most. But they want an improved version of the one they stumbled into as a stop-gap during the pandemic.

Says a new mother, an apparel designer who is looking for another job: “The best working arrangement would be one where you can call me to office even three days a week but with fixed hours. And even in WFH, I need flexibility with clearly demarcated hours and don’t call me after that.” During her maternity break, she left on a chance visit to her hometown right before the pandemic’s second wave hit. She has since resumed work but has chosen to stay back because her extended family takes care of her barely year-old son as she works erratic hours. But now that her employer wants her back in office, she is left with no option but to leave her toddler behind until she works out a better arrangement.

“They don’t all necessarily want a fully remote job, but they just want to work from home on the days they need to,” says Bagaria whose portal hasn’t seen a dip in women applying for WFH roles though many women are applying for full-time roles as well.

Although companies touted a flexible hybrid model as the future of work at the peak of the pandemic, they have veered more towards getting employees back to office as the country’s Covid-19 case load has declined and vaccinations have crossed 1 billion. For instance, new-age firm Zomato said in its quarterly report that remote work, while employee-friendly, is not customer-friendly. The company, whose Gurugram headquarters are fully operational, has defined the new normal as one “where people are primarily working out of a shared space but still have the flexibility to go remote a few days or weeks in a year”. It did not respond to Business Today’s queries. Other companies Business Today reached out to declined to comment.

“From what we have seen so far, hybrid is a sweet spot for our employees for whom coming in two days a week gives them the opportunity to collaborate with their teams and balance requirements at home the remaining days,” says Axis Bank President and Head-HR Rajkamal Vempati. The bank’s 15,000 non-customer-facing employees are working in a hybrid model. Around 2,500 among them are fully remote through its GIG-A Anywhere and GIG-A Freelancers programmes. “Women form 45 per cent of our employees working from anywhere,” she adds.

“The hybrid work pattern is not a challenge for us as we always see 30-40 per cent of our associates working from anywhere. In fact, our women employees can be direct beneficiaries of the hybrid work mode, as it will grant them the flexibility to strike a balance between their professional and personal lives,” says Tech Mahindra Global Chief People Officer and Head (Marketing) Harshvendra Soin. The IT firm, which says its gender diversity went up by almost 2 per cent last quarter, has allowed employees to choose their work location as per their convenience till December 2021.

The bumps notwithstanding, widespread acceptance of flexibility among Indian companies itself is a big win because even two years ago this wouldn’t have been possible, say the women.

“Organisations and leaders are willing to make exceptions for great talent. Earlier, despite the talent being great you had to let go of people because your policies didn’t allow flexibility,” says Randstad’s Raghuvanshi. Vempati, a working mother herself who has found remote work advantageous, says: “If we get this right as organisations, it could be the fillip to make sure women do not drop out of the workforce.”

Besides, it’s not just the women seeking these changes. “A lot of millennial careers are about flexibility. They now demand it and it won’t be a women’s issue anymore. That’s also what is causing companies to roll out a lot of flexible policies and women will end up as the biggest beneficiaries,” says Bagaria.

Vempati agrees. “Younger employees have found comfort in working from their hometowns with the confidence that they will see the career growth and development opportunities similar to working from the office full-time.” Factoring in the next generation’s preference is what may dictate the success of work formats, she adds.

With companies reporting increases in productivity and diversity during remote work, there are newer opportunities to address as they draft their hybrid work policies. S.V. Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer at consulting major Deloitte India, points out that the increase in professional workload may be agnostic to gender, but the household workload, in many instances in our country, falls more on the woman. Flagging two data points from their research, he says only 25 per cent of the organisations surveyed in India offer flexible working and only 17 per cent have clear boundaries around working hours. “There’s room for new possibilities in providing mentorship and coaching opportunities to women or creating a support system for caregivers over and beyond anything that’s required by law, so that they can adapt to any form of working.”

There’s also a lot riding on childcare and the reopening of schools for working mothers. “If physical schools don’t fully start by the time companies are planning a return to office, there is absolutely going to be mass resignations among women,” says Bagaria. Society for Human Resource Management India’s Senior Knowledge Advisor Saurabh Singh says flexibility, children’s education and childcare, and overall well-being are the three policy focus areas for the organisations they work with. “How can we look at working women employees not just as individuals but as part of a family to allay concerns around health, safety and care of the employees, their children and aged parents? All these things are getting drafted in policies and tested as we speak.”

KLAY Pre Schools and Daycare CEO A.K. Srikanth also says discussions with corporates have become more frequent over the past month. “Quite a few are approaching us to ask, ‘Okay, if we were to open by January, how do you think you can help us?’.” He says the forward-thinking firms are getting them to talk to parents because the first question in the minds of working parents when employers ask them to return is, “Is it safe to send my child back to a day care or do I even do this job?”

Another big concern in the minds of middle- and junior-level employees is performance evaluation should they opt for more remote work. Will my manager rate me on the basis of number of hours he sees me in office or the quality of my work, will I be passed up for plum assignments and promotions, how do I present myself in a hybrid setup so that my voice is heard are some of the questions often cropping up in discussions, the experts say.

Getting hybrid work right involves ensuring biases don’t creep in because of the woman not being physically present in office. Interweave’s Menon puts it like this: Remote and hybrid work would be a net gain for women if they have the option of flexibility without the burden of having to prove they are working hard in a remote setting. Organisations have to train both their managers and employees to work out these kinks if they don’t want to risk disengaging the women of the workforce, the recruiters and consultants say.

“We hold workshops around virtual presence because instances of mansplaining could be higher in a remote engagement, setting boundaries both at work and home and even the need to dress up in remote work,” says Interweave’s Menon. It’s important to convey good hybrid work practices to women because it’s so easy for them to feel they need to put in more hours of unpaid work to compensate for working remotely, she adds.

If firms can have flexibility, childcare and these best practices of hybrid work pat down, they are sitting on a game-changing model to bring in more women into the workforce. To put it in Bagaria’s words: “In the long run, this is going to be the watershed moment when things really accelerated for women’s careers.”