Flexi work is defined as being able to choose when or where to work. Surveys conducted globally show that employees are looking for ways to achieve a better work-life balance. Businesses on the other hand, are looking to maximize productivity and engagement with employees. Companies that have the business foresight to put flexi work policies in place are finding better productivity, better engagement and lower attrition in employees. However, if the benefits are there for all to see, why are these policies not found in the mainstream?
A white paper released by Regus, a global workplace solutions provider came up with some startling findings in support for flexi work. Regus conducted its survey in 80 countries and interviewed over 17000 senior business people. A compelling finding was that 60 percent of the businesses globally, felt that flexible working practices, whether related to office hours or location, were more cost-efficient than fixed working schedules. This is in addition to the carbon reduction benefits gained from reduced commuting distances. In emerging economies, businesses believe that flexi working practices are an asset to them in periods of sudden growth as they allow rapid scalability.
Let’s stop for a moment here to really understand work-life balance. Why is it such a buzzword today? In an environment where quality recruitments are a challenge and retaining existing talent an even bigger one, a good, hard look at employee engagement is needed. Policies are formulated, but as Chitra Jha, inner peace counsellor and author of Achieve Your Highest Potential says, “It has been seen that most people do just as much work as will not get them fired and most corporates just pay as much as would keep the employee interested in the job, no wonder we breed mediocrity.The real talented ones are hard to find and they can’t be controlled by any lure.” More and more employees are quitting at the peak of their careers because they are not able to balance home and work adequately. In the metro cities where the cost of living is high, nuclear families have become the norm. Better opportunities have led to social mobility in the domestic services sector, so support services at home are becoming almost scarce. In such an environment, talented young parents have very little choice but to quit. In addition, the long commutes to work at unearthly hours are taking a toll on the productivity of employees, while the pressure to stay ahead compounds the problems. This has, in addition, a series of undesirable social outcomes in terms of broken marriages, road rage, stress-related lifestyle diseases… the list goes on.
Flexi Work and Gender
A lot of companies have woken up to flexi working, but tend to see this mainly as a measure to address gender diversity issues. True, women employees have a genuine case for flexi work, since women are still viewed as primary caregivers to their children. In double income nuclear households, it is more often the woman who compromises on growth in her career. Fleximoms is a company that is creating a space for flexi working practices, in the minds of corporates and young mothers. Sairee Chahal, co –founder Fleximoms, agrees that her company’s target are women, simply because there is a ready pool of women with domain knowledge, skills and competencies out there. Sairee reels off statistics, “India has the highest number of women graduates in the world. Almost 30 million of these women drop out of the work force for a variety of reasons.” According to Sairee, “The caregiver process is completely owned by women at present. Men joining the caregiver process is just a conversation at present.” Avtar founded by Soundarya Rajesh has been extensively profiled as one of the first recruitment firms to specialize on women recruitments and making a case for flexi work for women. Fleximoms have expanded their platform to include training corporates, in order to sensitize line managers on how to cope with gender diversity and flexi work practices. With a gender diversity mandate for businesses to fulfil, Fleximom’s and Avtar‘s services fit neatly into their niche.
Flexi Work in India
In India, Genpact, Sapient, Agilent technologies, HP India, Accenture, American Express, Google, Microsoft, Bharti and IBM are some of the companies who have flexible working policies in place. Agilent Technologies views this as a part of its business strategy. Their website outlines, “We must be able to address work-life challenges and leverage diverse perspectives, talent and teams to meet global challenges.” In fact technology plays a very big part in the flexi work model. Advanced systems have to be put into place for the business to track employee productivity and engagement. Fortunately, almost all large companies do have some of these systems in place for their senior executives, who need company resources at short notice when they are travelling to outside locations on work. Also, multinational companies already have these models in their offices outside India, so it’s simply a matter of replication of that model.
Genpact has pioneered flexi work with a section of its employees. Piyush Mehta, Senior Vice President- HR, Genpact says, “We have 55,000 employees worldwide of which 40,000 are in India. 83 percent of Genpact’s employees out of India are on the flexi work model.” He further revealed that around 2500 employees in India are also on flexi work. “Security systems are in place and some more are being developed to bring more employees onto the flexi work platform.” He conceded however, that one of the reasons why more employees were not in this was because of client mandate. The company is in the business of providing services on the strength of their employees, so it is on the client’s preference whether a particular process can be allowed to be done from a remote location or not. Piyush pointed out that Genpact’s flexi work policy is operational across all levels of employees and if a process permits flexiwork, then the employees are given the choice to work from either environment. He says,”Even the lead hiring executive in Genpact works on flexi timings.” When asked how the company manages evaluations and team motivations, Piyush said that, “These employees report to office once a week where managers evaluate and assess performance and spell out deliverables.” He hasn’t faced many challenges in the flexiwork implementation process. Piyush Mehta in fact, prefers to call them ‘difficulties’ rather than ‘challenges.’
Sapient is another company that practices flexi work practices. Prashant Bhatnagar, Director-Hiring, Sapient was very clear about how he viewed flexi work practices. Sapient has about 10,000 employees globally, of which 7,000 are based in India. Like Genpact, employees outside India enjoy almost complete flexi work benefits. According to Prashant, “The flexi work model in other countries is much more evolved. They have different platforms at which flexi work operates – hot desks, telecommuting and much better internet access.” He asks,” How many homes in India till recently had broadband internet access? It’s true, data cards have eased the situation a bit but a lot more needs to be done yet.” There is some truth in Prashant’s argument and as this article was being written, Huffington Post reported the results of a global survey on internet speeds. Its conclusion was that Libya, Nepal, Nigeria, Iran and then India, (ranked at No. 5) was amongst the nine countries with super slow internet speeds. Prashant believes that need-based flexilbility was the better option at this stage, since Sapient was essentially a consulting firm and it was important to have employees in office to bounce off ideas and conduct brainstorming sessions among the teams. “Of course, employees are already accessing data, since systems are in place to accommodate employees on the move for work-related travelling.” RSA tokens and other intranet applications allow Sapient’s employees to take limited time off for flexi work, say, once a week to run chores at home, or working reduced hours for less pay. Prashant, however, was very supportive of flexi work options for female employees, again for certain periods of time. Once again the yardstick is need-based. He revealed that last year’s attrition figures showed that Sapient was able to attain 100 percent female employee retention, due to the company’s flexi work policy practices for women.
The Buy In
Flexi work practices are highly attractive for employees and businesses alike but the road to actual implementation is long and requires commitment from all stakeholders. The Regus Global Report reports that 59 percent of Indian firms believe that flexi work culture lowers cost as compared to fixed office working culture. True to the Indian paradox, 57 percent of Indian firms would only allow senior staff to benefit from flexible working practices. Why is this so? Is it the ‘trust’ factor? Kamaljeet Singh Ahluwalia of Excalibre believes that the Indian cultural ethos is tuned to a “touch and feel’ preference. He points out, “Look at the initial resistance to online shopping by Indians till Flipkart.com came and addressed that very issue to create a winning business model for the Indian shopper.” He says, “If the whole issue of trust can be channeled towards ownership and empowerment, then productivity and retention become easier to achieve.”
The Regus white paper identified the three top challenges facing businesses today:
- Getting top management “buy in”
- Identifying jobs that can be done flexibly
- Integrating flexi working jobs and flexi working employees into existing working relationships
The path to flexi work culture, then, is all about changing mindsets. This applies in equal parts to not just the top management towards a ‘buy in’, but also employees who are conditioned to structured office working schedules. Employees in India are rewarded with positive evaluation if they “stretch” their hours in office without assessing deliverables. As deliverables become clearly defined and the cost of reducing infrastructural resources becomes clearer, the way to flexiworking will correspondingly become clearer. However, it emerges that there is a lot of positive sentiment across major Indian businesses on the multiple benefits of flexible working practices. The trick is in viewing them as an inspired business strategy rather than viewing it as just another ‘benefit’ for employees.
This piece was originally published in SHRMIndia