A recent report by the World Bank indicates that female participation in the workforce in India has actually decreased over the past decade, with an estimated 20 million women ‘dropping out’ of the workforce between 2005 and 2012. This, even as serious efforts over the past several decades have pushed up female literacy and education levels in India. In our own time, perhaps the biggest challenge we face is tackling this phenomenon of ‘vanishing’ working women; women who have the skills and education to be gainfully employed but are inexplicably absent from the workforce.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for working women continues to be maternity. Women are seen as primary care-givers to children in India, a notion reinforced by the fact that only women are offered parental leave.
It is important for organizations to support women in the workplace, especially working mothers. One important way to do this, other than a more equitable leave policy, would be to offer employees a greater degree of flexibility in the way they work.
The remote workers of Rang De
Many of Rang De’s employees started working full-time out of our office in Bengaluru, before they chose to work remotely. Chandra Baid who has been a Finance Consultant with Rang De since 2014, worked for six months at Rang De’s office in Bengaluru, before she moved to Hyderabad with her family. Chandra has been working remotely since July 2015.
Swati Dubey, an Impact Manager with Rang De, worked at the Bengaluru office for more than two years, before she took a break for maternity. She started working remotely after she moved with her family to a different part of the country.
Swati Agarwal, the VP of Technology at Rang De, worked from home most of the time, visiting the office once a week to coordinate with her team. After she moved cities with her family, Swati went to working from home full-time.
Swati Dubey, Chandra and Swati Agarwal all head key positions at Rang De, discharging their duties while working from home.
One of the persistent problems with working remotely is communication. For Swati D, who was used to working with her colleagues sitting across a table, the transition was particularly hard. But moving on from “verbal communication” has helped her in other ways “When I started working, I shifted more to the emails or chats. So my communication with my team members has become more structured,” she says.
Technology has also become a big enabler when it comes to remote working and fostering communication. Says Swati A, “In case I am not able to communicate with my team properly, I made sure that I pinged them on hangouts or picked up the phone. Initially, I was a bit hesitant because pinging people all the time or calling them would be a little bit awkward. But then, within a month or so, I met the team members and things got better.”
But technology can also pose a challenge. Chandra says, “There are hundreds of mails exchanged each day and I don’t have the context for all the communication… sometimes things get left out and people completely forget. At times, I am required to exercise a greater control over the team and I should know what the team members are up to. That isn’t always possible”
Average working day
Apart from the challenges of communication and a limited interaction with the team members, did the average day of working from home differ from a day spent in the office?
“It looks like a usual working day, more or less” says Swati A, who logs in at nine am and logs off by six-thirty pm, with breaks for lunch and tea in between.
Chandra Baid also follows the timing of the routine workday, working from nine in the morning to six in the evening, save for the half an hour break she takes at three in the afternoon, to pick her kids up from school.
The women who are working from home have a separate room set aside for work. For Chandra, this means a room where only her stuff is kept. “Though my in-laws stay with us, we employ a maid at home, to take care of things,” she says.
Swati A too has a separate room set up as a work station in her home. “Most of the time I work from there but sometimes I pick up my laptop and move around the house. But I have a separate room where I work,” she says
How to maintain self-discipline when working from home
Between them, Swati A, Swati D and Chandra have been working remotely for Rang De for little over a decade.
For Swati D, “trust” has been a major factor in making sure that she isn’t slacking off. “I think the kind of trust that the organization places on you motivates you to fulfill your responsibilities on time,” she says. During the days right after her child was born, Swati D faced some difficulty in juggling work and parenthood. “During those days, whenever I thought that I was missing work time, I used to note that time period and work at night. So that is how I managed that situation and by the time my son was six to eight months old, things were better,” she says.
“It is about being sincere and being honest towards your work and everything else will fall into place,” says Swati A.
“It is some kind of an internal feeling which makes me feel that I am privileged to be working from home… it is up to me to make sure that I try to give as much as I would have if I would have been going to office”
Chandra’s reasons for working from home are far more prosaic. “In finance, half the time it is people coming to us with queries. Rather than take a minute for this work, you tend to spend ten minutes. In the office, there are a lot of distractions,” Chandra doesn’t mean to imply that people working in the office are less efficient; it is just that she feels far more productive working from home. “When I sit at my laptop from nine to eleven, it is two productive hours. Even if I get up for a break, I feel like I have done so much of work,” she says.
On her part, Smita Ram, the co-founder and Managing Trustee at Rang De, has never faced any problem with Rang De’s employees who work remotely. “In so many years, I have never faced any problem with the people who choose to work from home. They have always done their work right on time,” she says.
While there need to be more friendly policies to ensure that more women and working mothers stay in the workforce, Smita feels that it is not enough to stop at instituting these policies. She believes that things will not change unless there is a cultural shift in the workplace, one that moves away from deeming working mothers a liability and sees them as productive assets instead.