Return to Office: Will women continue to pay a price for flexibility?

Negotiating the new, evolving rules of the workplace can be especially tricky for women. But there is a war for talent, and companies are going back to the drawing board to address concerns

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Apr 22, 2022 01:16:18 PM IST
Updated: Apr 22, 2022 07:28:07 PM IST

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as women continued to suffer more job losses than men, corporate leaders were confident that the future of work is remote and flexible, and saw it as an opportunity to fill gender diversity and inclusion gaps. Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
In Ahmedabad, Shreya Jasani is worried. The 27-year-old MBA graduate was a relationship manager with Citibank in Mumbai when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and she relocated to her hometown in Gujarat. Two job switches later, she is now a campaign portfolio manager with travel arrangements company InterMiles (formerly known as JetPrivilege). Jasani got married in July last year. She stays with her in-laws and cannot go back to the office in Mumbai.
Job opportunities in Ahmedabad offer compensation that is way less for her level of skills and experience, and interviews with companies in Mumbai get stuck at the point where she requests for flexible work. “My current office has not called me back yet, but eventually they will. I am not finding better jobs here in Ahmedabad. My only way out is to look for companies outside that offer flexible and remote work opportunities… but I feel like my career will hit a hard-stop.”

In Mumbai, Rashi Kapoor (name changed), 30, has started going to the office three days a week. A chartered accountant working with one of India’s largest private sector companies, she not only has to compulsorily spend nine hours in office—as per the punch-in/punch-out system of pre-Covid days that is still enforced—but many a times she is given work even after she gets back home. Over and above, she spends at least two hours commuting to and fro on the local train, and has housework to do once she gets back.
“Even if we come back to office, do we really need to continue practices exactly as they were in the pre-Covid days, even if they do not make sense anymore as an indicator of productivity?” Kapoor asks. It does not help, according to her, that the company leadership is dominated by men. For most working men, going to the office is just a question of getting out of the house, and not having to care much about anything else. They shoulder domestic or care responsibilities only when it is convenient to them, Kapoor says. “But it is not so for women,” she explains, adding that companies need to be mindful of the nuances of such systemic gender expectations as they take employees through this period of transition at the workplace.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as women continued to suffer more job losses than men, corporate leaders were confident that the future of work is remote and flexible, and saw it as an opportunity to fill gender diversity and inclusion gaps.
Two years down the line, as many companies firm up their return to office or hybrid working policies, data suggests that they might be giving the same values of flexibility and remote work a side-eye, which can be particularly challenging for women in the workforce. A recent consumer research survey conducted by LinkedIn among 2,266 Indian participants found that three in five working women believe the stigma around workplace flexibility is now ‘worse than ever’, with 88 percent women having had to take a pay cut to work flexibly.

“At a time when the boundaries between personal and professional lives are continuing to blur, flexible working can prove to be of great respite for working women often burdened with juggling personal and professional responsibilities. For instance, our research reveals that due to poor flexi-working policies, India’s working women are 2x more likely to have to choose between childcare and career, when compared to men,” Ruchee Anand, senior director—talent and learning solutions, LinkedIn, tells Forbes India. Flexible working is the biggest priority for both men and women today, she adds, but “the repercussions for not getting flexibility at work are far greater for women in India today”.
Another recent survey by CIEL HR covering 620 companies representing 2,10,000 female employees of big corporations across IT, ITeS, education, BFSI, recruitment and staffing industries indicates that seven out of 10 working women look for opportunities that offer flexibility, about 74 percent of them are mid-senior level employees.

A Ganesh, 25, found that time saved by working remotely (and not commuting) allowed her to be productive while also finding time to upskill. She quit her job earlier this month, in favour of a remote opportunity in the sector. Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
A case in point is A Ganesh, 25, who is serving her notice period as a content specialist in an edtech startup in Bengaluru. She quit earlier this month in favour of a job with another edtech company that has offered her a remote job role. Ganesh—who wants to only be identified with her first name—says she could not make headway with her current organisation with requests for flexible work, and the company expected her to eventually come to office, which Ganesh feels would have impacted her productivity and growth prospects. “If I go to the office, I would spend at least two-three hours commuting. Right now, I am using that time to upskill myself through online courses. Since flexible work saves me time and energy, I have also been able to take up fitness skills like boxing,” she says.
“Companies do not have a choice anymore. Anyone who is rigid has already lost the game,” says Kaushik Ray, chief human resources (HR) officer, ITC Infotech. The Bengaluru-based subsidiary of ITC Limited has, in collaboration with Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury, launched a work from anywhere model. The company—with over 10,500 employees, 23 percent of whom are women—is spending “significant hours” in sharpening this model that allows it to implement work, hire and learn from anywhere in a more “structured, inclusive and strategic way”, says Ray. In principle, the model allows employees to perform 75-80 percent of their work from anywhere. For the remaining 20-25 percent of work days, the entire team comes together in the office to foster collaboration and engagement. 

Culture Call

Some organisations are asking women, ‘Wouldn’t you be coming to office if the pandemic wasn’t there?’, says Radhika Gopalkrishnan, managing partner at HR consultancy firm Kincentric. “But that’s not a fair question, because the pandemic did happen and things did change. So companies have to recalibrate accordingly.”

Both companies and employees are doing some soul-searching, she explains. While the latter is relooking at their sense of purpose and putting flexibility front and centre in job negotiations, companies are letting go of their rigidity as they struggle to hold on to people given the ongoing war for skilled talent. “Organisations are learning to cope with this divide between functions that need physical presence and those that can be performed remotely. They are going back to the drawing board to articulate their culture, what they stand for, and using that to attract and hook people,” says Gopalkrishnan.
When it comes to helping women make a comfortable transition to new workplace norms, it is important to keep flexibility and empathy at the core, agrees Harshvendra Soin, global chief people officer and head-marketing, Tech Mahindra. The IT company has 1,45,000 employees, about 35 percent are women. Return to office is more a mindset and change management issue, Soin says. “For example, if you have worked from home in the past two years, managing the house, work, and caring for a child, it will be difficult for you to suddenly look for creches if you have to come to the office. So, as companies, we secure tie-ups with creches that can help you comfortably manage the transition,” he says.

Ecommerce platform Flipart says it has evaluated employee readiness through a combination of team meetings, one-to-one discussions, chatbot conversations, survey and regular check-ins, before reopening the corporate office in phases beginning March. There are policies to ensure people are given appropriate time to manage relocation, child care, elder care and other responsibilities, says Krishna Raghavan, chief people officer, Flipkart. “By maintaining a flexible approach, we are able to customise solutions based on employee needs.”
Flexible working has helped women employees stay in the workforce for longer, while helping returning mothers come back to work more easily, says SV Nathan, partner and chief talent officer, Deloitte India. Even then, in the post-Covid world, women continue to feel very pressured with an overhang of guilt about whether they are doing enough in both their personal and professional lives, he says.

“It is for companies to help them manage those boundaries of work.” For this, Nathan explains, managers need to be educated to have a razor-sharp focus on sustaining the culture of the organisation even in the wake of talent shuffles. “Gone are the days when we could just talk about shared values. We have to demonstrate it now in different ways when you don’t get to meet people face to face.”

Companies need to be mindful of the nuances of systemic gender expectations as they take employees through this period of transition at the workplace. Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

Women and men seek flexibility for certain common reasons, like saving time, costs and energy, and being able to work as per one’s comfort, but there are a few unique distinctions too, says Aditya Mishra, CEO, CIEL HR. According to him, while women cite care for the elderly and children as major reasons for seeking flexibility, men want it for possibilities like moving to their hometown to be rooted in their communities, following their passions outside of their career or even doing social work. “The mindset for women is still largely from a care angle, while for men, it is about being providers,” says Mishra.

Social constructs are barriers for women to progress at the workplace, but companies can be powerful vehicles of initiating social change, says Nirmala Menon, CEO of Interweave Consulting, a professional diversity consulting organisation. This change can be, for example, using corporate programmes and awareness-building tools to help men see the need and value of undertaking domestic and care work at home. “Already, because of work from home during the pandemic, a lot of men have—even if out of necessity—started playing their part at home. They would also want to continue this going forward and organisations need to support this change.”

But if companies simply create quick-fix policies without understanding foundational issues, it might further pre-existing biases such as women seen as being given preferential treatment at the workplace. “This is why we see so many organisations talk about all this, but the needle is not moving,” says Menon. “Fixing the work culture requires mindset changes. Doing this in a way that creates an emotional appeal for men will change everyday behaviour.”

Problem of Presenteeism

It is important for companies, at a policy level, to strike a balance between the merits of flexible work and return to office, while trying to address specific concerns of employees, says Sudhir Dhar, executive director, and head-HR and admin, Motilal Oswal Financial Services.For him, the benefits of being in office outweighs working from home in the long run for a couple of reasons.

With flexible working, women stand to miss out on informal mentoring, decision-making and building a bond with co-workers, which can get reflected in assignments or team projects. Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
First, being in office cements a stronger sense of identity toward an organisation. Second, interactions and collaborations with colleagues build lasting relationships and foster learning. Third, being in office can tackle issues like lack of space and network connectivity problems often faced by employees working in large cities like Mumbai. “Also imagine a scenario where you are married and living with your in-laws. People at home might expect you to run errands, do things for them or step out with them during a work day, which could stress you out,” he says.
Menon agrees that there are ways in which women specifically stand to lose out if they demand flexible work vis-a-vis men who are physically present in office. “There are chances that certain cliques might get formed in the office. Also, if there is an emergency at work, chances are the senior leader is likely to wind up those around in the office to make a decision,” she says. So women stand to miss out on informal mentoring, decision-making and building a bond with co-workers, which can get reflected in assignments or team projects. “For a lot of women, this can be career-breakers as they might not get opportunities to rise up the leadership ladder.”
Gopalkrishnan of Kincentric says the pay gap might also become an issue with flexibility. “The two things important for managers are availability and dependability. The ones who are available physically in office will earn more than those who are not, and this may further widen the salary gap,” she says.
In order to avoid these potential downsides, it is important for companies to devise new ways of tracking and assessing performance. Menon suggests that managers have to be aware, sensitive and better-prepared to organise their work.
There should be policies around how meetings are conducted, policies to ensure every employee receives equal facetime with the bosses and mentoring opportunities, says Prithwiraj Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School. He predicts companies that have flexibility as a cornerstone of their model will become talent magnets over time, and they will “attract and retain the best employees”.
According to him, performance measurement systems should be objective so that implicit biases do not creep into how ratings are given. “Performance should be done based on output of work, not based on how many days I am in the office or how many meetings I attend, because the latter is just the input of work,” he says. “Reassessing how you measure performance will create a level-playing field for every employee, especially women.”

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