Not at home with flexi-work, Marissa?

Saundarya Rajesh | Updated on November 20, 2017 Published on March 07, 2013

All on board: A diverse workforce fetches the best available talent.   -  ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The Yahoo! chief may demur, but it makes no business sense to disregard career-enablers for women.

Recently, for the second time in a row, Yahoo! Chief Marissa Mayer created ripples of the work-life balance kind. Hot on the heels of one of her first acts of leadership — asserting that her maternity ‘break’ would be a few days (not weeks or months), Marissa in a recent memo abolished all work-from-home arrangements at the company. This instantly threw the spotlight on one of the most discussed topics in the world of employee engagement — flexi-work arrangements.

Was Marissa right in her assessment that all employees need to be at their workplace to be productive? Will this decision find support among other companies that have so far espoused the virtue of work-life integration? Is ‘presence’ at office essential to innovation and creativity? But then, does not the removal of an employee benefit (such as working from home) have the exact opposite effect by way of poor morale and low engagement?

On this March 8, the 102nd anniversary of International Women’s Day, I don’t have all the answers, but as someone who has been observing the space of women’s participation in the workforce over the past 13 years, I do know that flexible working is the veritable oxygen of women’s careers, especially in India.

Consider this. Over 95 per cent of all women who wish to pursue careers are in need of flexibility (Source: Viewport 2011 by FLEXI Careers India). In many Indian families, the woman’s career is still secondary to that of the man, and the extended family is not always ready to support her career. The plight of the educated woman married to a reasonably well-earning man and unable to follow her aspirations is viewed with less empathy than the situation of the rural female worker. There is a certain societal sanction to empowering a woman at the grassroots level, while her urban counterpart is not seen worthy of the same in the absence of a strong economic need. Her career is mercilessly aborted if it demands more focus than her husband’s.

For this woman, flexibility is a career-saver. It makes life easier and the possibility of economic independence more of a reality. And facilitates her retention in the workplace. Needless to mention, the investment made in women’s education by the family, the taxpayer and the Government has a chance of delivering returns.

Even senior women interviewed in the study said they used flexibility in some form during their career, which led them to leadership positions. Many women holding the Chief Executive Officer title over the past 4-5 years spelt out that while it was difficult to manage a demanding career and an equally demanding home, flexibility definitely made life easier. Efforts to infuse diversity at the board level will certainly depend on flexibility to take more women to leadership levels.

But where does work-life integration for men figure here? The answer is that the past decade has veritably been the golden age of Employee Engagement. The employee, especially in knowledge industries, was the blue-eyed boy or girl, whose leaving meant that your competitive edge walked out on you. If you as an organisation did not match the others in providing every conceivable benefit, you had only yourself to blame for the high attrition. As such, work-life integration, originally associated with women, became legit and extended to men too.

And it made sense. With husband and wife in high-profile careers, and joint families giving way to nuclear units, it meant that if the child’s day-care facility closed down even for a day, one parent had to take leave to stay home. With offices increasingly located far from the city centre, impossibly long commutes are the norm. If one spouse had the flexibility to integrate some ‘own-time’ into a day, it meant that the children led less-traumatic lives.

With so many pluses, flexibility is increasingly a permanent fixture in working lives around the world. So, how does one rationalise Marissa’s decision?

There appears to be a gradual shift of balance in favour of the employer during the last couple of economically stressful years. There is greater accent on productivity, per capita output and measurable, result-oriented work. Employee loyalty seems secondary to efficiency. Flexibility now has to be justified and warranted.

In such a scenario, organisations should take care not to rescind on their commitment towards a diverse workplace. Apart from the obvious benefits of out-of-box thinking and a heterogeneous approach to problem solving, a gender diverse workforce also fetches the best available talent.

More thought, effort and time should be invested in designing jobs that engage and motivate women. For Marissa’s own sake, I hope that the ploy of removing work-life integration from Yahoo! does not work. Why? Because not paying heed to the employee’s personal life, whether man or woman, would mean that in the long run the organisation will lose its branding as an employer of choice. And the growing demographic of one billion women around the world will not take kindly to a complete disregard of one of their most important career-enablers — flexibility. Surely, having the folks who make 83 per cent of all purchase decisions globally on your side would be imperative to every CEO.

The writer is Founder-President, AVTAR Career Creators and FLEXI Careers India

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Published on March 07, 2013
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