In my last column, I covered the 30-year decline of women@work in India. Much has been attempted over the past decades and accept that these efforts have failed to bring more women to work. Now is the time for radical experimentation and the pandemic has offered a glimpse of hope in the form of “flexible working arrangements”.
COVID-19 has had a large and far-reaching impact on women’s employment in India. Unsurprisingly, more women lost their jobs and fewer sought new work when the recovery was underway. In a cruel twist, female employment was higher in sectors such as retail, hospitality and tourism and these sectors bore the maximum brunt of the pandemic.
Amid this terrible news, pandemic-induced job disruptions have sparked the biggest employment experiment of recent times – “working from home”. For almost two years, companies have been experimenting with a new office grammar. Several experiments were underway, ranging from all teams fully remote, some teams offline and the rest virtual, optional work from the office, to newer hybrid working arrangements.
There have been mixed feelings and results. Some studies claim an increase in productivity, others report a possible decrease in collaboration; there are the obvious fallout from employee engagement and arguments that some roles and mandates were better suited to remote than others.
All in all, this behemoth experiment has kept the lights on in media companies, advertising agencies, telecommunications, banks, factories, and many startups quite successfully. Generally speaking, companies, managers and employees have understood this. It is therefore not absurd to think that a significant number of employees can work remotely (totally or partially) in a highly functional way.
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Working women have been hit hard by the pandemic. Speaking of urban India, less than 7% of women are working today. Even sadder, the number of women looking for work is also decreasing.
As we stumble into what feels like a post-pandemic world, it’s important to think about a gender-positive return to the workplace. I am convinced that flexibility (of times and location) can be a game-changer for urban women.
A fortnight ago, I met the founder of a fast-growing baby diaper company and asked her how their return to work had been. She told me that aside from the factory staff, the team is entirely remote and it has worked so well that they don’t feel the need for a physical office space.
Recently, one of my employees got married. His wife works at a tech company and her company offered a fully remote option, she takes it because she saves on the commute and can spend that time on her interests outside of work.
I run a startup and when I reach out to recruiters to hire talent, it’s refreshing to hear the recruiter ask me: is this a telecommuting role? Is there flexibility? Obviously, candidates care and ask them these questions.
Many of you will have these stories to share. But to solve a gender-friendly recovery, we will need to codify flexibility. It cannot be left to the initiative of an individual or a manager. For impact at scale, we need to define flexible working arrangements, establish standards for offering them, and find ways to evaluate performance.
There has been talk of a flexible workplace or a remote work act. Currently, labor laws and codes don’t cover this in a meaningful way (it’s mentioned in a draft model ordinance, but it’s not very actionable). Several countries have adopted regulations around flexible working – Spain, Finland, UK, EU – but in our context, I think Singapore’s approach is worth exploring.
Singapore has not adopted a rights-based approach, but has instead created voluntary standards for employers and employees. They did this through consultations with industry and employees to define flexible working in a terrific granular way. Four major areas are enlisted in the Singapore Voluntary Standards.
1. Encourage companies to define FWAs (flexible working hours): Not everything can be flexible or fully flexible. So they asked companies to define Flexi-load (part-time, e.g. 5 hours a day), Flexi-time (staggered hours over the week, e.g. Monday-Wednesday) and Flexi-place (set remote days) roles. ). They defined this differently for large companies versus smaller ones.
2. Explain to employees how to request FWAs: Clear process for looking for FWA opportunities in a company and how to organize discussions with managers.
3. Training and assessment structure for FWAs: Transparent process with objective criteria focused on eliminating bias against offline employees.
4. Signage around FWAs: Create a logo or badge that businesses can use to display their membership of FWAs as employers of choice. They can then sign up for grants and workshops to activate them as well.
Basically, this works for Singapore and any other country that wants to codify this, because the employer sees the benefit of being able to attract talent that they would otherwise miss out on. There is enough recognition of the diversity dividend in India and there is every reason for it to work here too.
There is a need for stakeholders – employees and employers – to create voluntary standards. Let a flexible workplace be a badge of honor. In 2022, let’s make a competitive list to judge the best workplace for flexible working with separate Gold vs Silver vs Bronze standards.
Some economists worry that more distant or more flexible work arrangements could increase the gender pay gap. Our starting point in India is to create an environment that allows women volunteers to work. There are always trade-offs, getting more women into the workforce is the biggest challenge today and we have the results of a two-year experiment to create a catalyst like never before.
Simran Khara is a startup founder. She is an alumnus of ISB, Hyderabad, London School of Economics (UK) and Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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