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Yahoo’s stand on ‘work from home’ culture triggers debate

Deepa Kurup
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Flexible work options are sparingly used in Indian companies

Positive view:Many Indian HR managers say that offering flexi work hours does not get in the way of productivity and helps ensure ‘work-life balance’.— file photo: AP
Positive view:Many Indian HR managers say that offering flexi work hours does not get in the way of productivity and helps ensure ‘work-life balance’.— file photo: AP

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to put an end to the ‘work from home’ culture in her company has sparked a debate, globally, on the pros and cons of this human resources (HR) strategy, one that is used sparingly in Indian companies.

The all-or-nothing approach by the former Google executive, tasked with the job of cutting losses at the beleaguered Internet firm, has drawn flak from not just employees and HR strategists, but also feminists who term it “wholly regressive”. Her critics argue that her strategy completely overlooks the fact that working women, particularly soon after childbirth, use this option to keep their jobs. And given that globally, technology continues to be male-dominated, a blanket ban on such arrangements could only worsen the already ‘leaky’ pipeline.

Since Mayer’s announcement, several research reports and studies have surfaced that engage with the issue. Many indicate that there’s less stress and hence more productivity among stay-at-home employees. While some agree with the leaked Yahoo memo that “hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting people and meetings” are a valuable part of ideating, others feel that “socialising” over tea and even in formal meetings eat into productivity.

Some flexibility

Indian companies, though hardly as liberal as their overseas counterparts when it comes to ‘flexi’ work options (HR parlance for working from home) have, in recent years, put in place new policies that leave room for some flexibility.

“We never use it for the junior roles, but in many mid-level positions people are allowed flexi hours or to work from home,” says a team lead at a prominent tech MNC. In fact, he says, multinationals are far more open to such arrangements, where Indian companies “are stuck with notions of this leading to indiscipline”.

And it isn’t that you can slack off when exercising remote work options, he adds.

Dheeraj Valsan, who along with his wife works partially flexi hours to take care of his ailing father and their pre-schooler, says: “Deadlines are tighter, stricter when people work from home and companies enforce them far more rigorously. It’s actually stressful, but then you avoid the commute, so it evens out.”

Retaining new mothers

These options become all the more crucial when it comes to retaining women, particularly new mothers who may not want a break in their career. Plugging the leaky pipeline for women is a key concern even for the industry, given the women’s workforce in the IT/ITeS sector averages amounts to around 30 per cent and closer to 22 per cent in the non-BPO jobs.

Aarthi R., a legal consultant with an IT firm, says, she goes to office only once a week for meetings. This allows her to nurse her one-year-old child, while keeping her job. “I did not want a break as getting back is difficult,” she says. She adds that however, such options are not extended to all women in the company. “It’s on a case-by-case basis.”

Interestingly, a majority of flexi strategies in Indian companies are not full-fledged. Very few companies actually allow complete work from home. Most companies have a set number of days per month (three to five) and it is left to the managers’ discretion.

At Kronos India, for instance, engineers are allowed up to five days a month of work from home, including night shifts. Ashok Saxena, Head, India Engineering Centre, Kronos, says the company feels it often enhances productivity “because there are fewer distractions from their official social circle”.

Companies speak

Most companies The Hindu spoke with said they were in no hurry to go the Yahoo way. Many HR managers say that offering flexi work hours does not get in the way of productivity and helps ensure “work-life balance”. Many have firm policies in place to ensure uniformity in practice.

At Dell India, its HR strategy, titled Çonnected Workplace, allows for people to work in mobile or remote work solutions, says Vijay Bharadwaj, vice-president, HR, Dell India. “This allows them to realise their personal objectives and positively impacts careers.”

At GE India Technology centre, three types of flexible work arrangements (FWA) are offered: employees can choose their work timings, or work a day or two from home every week, or work part-time.

Introduced in 2008, this policy has found wide acceptance, a GE HR spokesperson said. In fact, contrary to perceptions that working women who are raising families, are more likely to opt for these, at GE India more than 40 per cent of those who have opted for FWA are males.

New age cloud-based technologies facilitate access across a range of devices, points out Bhuvaneswar Naik, vice-president, HR, SAP Labs India, allowing employees to collaborate easily. In general, SAP allows all employees to work from home one day every week. This, he says, is “good strategy, provided the employees respect the freedom and do not misuse the trust”.

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