Rise of the Fleximoms

Rise of the Fleximoms

‘Balance’ is the new buzzword for career women who refuse to choose between work and children.

‘Balance’ is the new buzzword for career women who refuse to choose between work and children. They want to be around when their kids need them, and they also want meaningful careers. And now there’s finally some hope they can expect to have their cake and eat it too, as Indian companies, according to a new business survey, show an increasing readiness to recruit mothers on ‘flexitime’.

If you are on a call with Anika Parashar Puri, business head of services at Mahindra Retail, you’ll have to put up with the din of children screaming in the background. Her colleagues are by now quite used to her telling them to ‘stop crying’ and ‘get off the bed’ during an important discussion. “I work full-time from home and my kids are always around me,” says Puri unapologetically. Once, her four-year-old son Nirvann walked in with soiled hands while she was on a call with her boss. “Wash your hands,” ordered Puri, to which her boss curtly replied that his hands were already clean.

On the job, at home Puri isn’t willing to change any of this, not for the world. She refused to give up on the grind after she became a mother. “I am nothing without my kids, but I am also nothing without my work.” Today, she is responsible for everything, right from the fragrance that will greet her customers at Mom & Me, Mahindra’s chain of stores that sell baby products, to training child birth educators, and she does it all from a tiny cubicle she has built for herself at home. Working from home, however, does not make it easier, claims Puri. Her routine can leave a 9 to 5 professional panting. Apart from being at the beck and call of two children and stressful deadlines, there are constant interruptions to pay bills, change diapers and handle homework. Plus she is required to travel to another city at least once a month.

The first time she flew to Bangalore for a meeting she felt very guilty about leaving her kids alone, despite her husband staying back to take care of the kids. In fact, she cried all the way in her flight.

Thankfully, her children are growing up, and they now understand when mom is busy and leave her alone.

“I keep telling myself it can’t get worse than this. It will only get better.” These days Puri is busy with a new project — she regulary writes about her daily struggle on her blog she aptly calls, ‘The diary of a burnt out supermom’.

Working with a baby Rama Bishnoi, an advertising consultant, can identify with Puri. Bishnoi has been a stay-at-home professional for the last 15 years. She quit her 9 to 5 job for a simple reason — she enjoyed her son’s company way too much. “It wasn’t a tough choice. I couldn’t rely on nannies. I loved my work and I loved my son. I decided to give both my time,” says Bishnoi.

She took Sooraj everywhere — to client meetings, presentations and advertising pitches. Often Sooraj would be snoozing in her kangaroo pack while she was busy finalising a business deal. Her career never took a back seat and yet she was always around for her son.

Last month, Bishnoi took a trip with her son to Trivandrum to watch the solar eclipse. She still goes cycling with him every once in a while, and bird watching trails is a regular event on weekends. “I can do it only because I don’t have a job that ties me down. When I started consulting from home, it was a rare thing. But these days, with video conferences and everything done over the email, it is a lot easier.” No wonder mothers believe they can find that much sought-after work-life balance.changing work culture

Indeed “balance” is the new buzzword for newly-turned mothers. They don’t necessarily want to be on the “mommy track”. They are ambitious and want promotions and meaningful careers. But they don’t want to deal with the guilt of leaving their children alone either. The good news is that some companies are changing to keep them around.

In The Regus Business Tracker survey, 64 per cent of Indian business leaders said they will recruit more mothers on a flexible-time basis over the next 24 months. The finding indicates that Indian work culture is, overall, keen to help employees achieve a balance between work and family responsibilities.

Mothers have another reason to cheer as well. The last two years have seen the birth of three internet portals that seek to help women find employers who offer work that can be done either from home or on a flexible schedule.

“Gone are the days when productivity meant your workforce coming in the morning and sitting at their desks all day long. Plenty of well-qualified mothers will give you the same quality by working from home or on a flexible schedule. These are intelligent women who have taken a break to take care of their children. It does not mean they are incapable,” says Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms, an online portal that connects women with employers who are looking to hire on a flexi-time basis. Soon enough, Chahal realised that simply setting up a portal wasn’t enough. “The unfortunate part is that after a five to six-year-long break, many of these women don’t have the confidence to get back to the professional sphere. There were women who called up Fleximoms to find out if resumes are written differently now, or if they should take a computer course to brush up on their skills,” says Chahal.

Making a comeback A flexible work schedule has been top of the working woman’s wish list the world over. Now it is finally becoming an option in India and women are making most of it. Take Sangeeta Navalkar’s example for instance.

Navalkar, an MBA, continued to work as a full-time marketing executive with a media company after she had her first son, Akash. She soon realised what she was missing out on. “I heard the mother of Akash’s classmate talking about how yoga at school was helping her child. And it struck me that I wasn’t even aware my son was doing yoga in school. I was stunned when I discovered that the classes had been going on for over a month.” When she asked Akash, then four, he innocently replied, “But you are just not there when I come home. And by the time you come back, I forget.” When Navalkar got pregnant with her second child, Amar, she decided to quit her job and do it right this time.

After taking a six-year-long break, and raising her two children, she decided it was time to get back to work. “The world had changed by then and I wasn’t confident of my skills,” she says.

That is when Navalkar applied for the Tata Second Careers Internship Programme, an initiative that trains women who have been out of the workforce for two years or more. The key requirement is that applicants are required to have at least four years of work experience and a graduation degree. The programme involves the women in a project with Tata Services, and also helps them hone their computer and presentation skills. “By the time they are done with the 6-month programme, they are confident enough to take on another job. In the first 15 days of advertising our initiative, we got over 5,000 applications. There are plenty of women who are waiting to come on board. They just need an opportunity,” says Hitesh Chugh, sourcing manager for Tata group HR.

Navalkar currently works on a flexible arrangement with Tata Services, where she is allowed to work from home on certain days and can return early on most days.

Ashutosh Navalkar, her husband, says his wife has changed after she started working. “She is happier and more confident after getting back to work. My wife took take care of the family for six years. Now it’s her turn to go after her career.” Overall, things have become better after his wife started working, says Navalkar. He had to share the PTA meetings and open houses with her. As a result, he got to know his sons better. “I consciously spend more time with my children. My younger son loves astronomy, so we take our telescope and organise a BNO (Boys Night Out) without the mom. It has helped us bond.”

Companies bat for moms Companies, too, are slowly realising the need to make work schedules flexible for their women professionals. Apart from Tata Services, big players like Godrej, Accenture, and Pepsico have also introduced flexible working programmes. GE introduced a programme called Restart, in 2008, which was implemented at their technology centre in Bangalore. It was aimed at attracting women technologists who had taken a break from their career for personal reasons.

Accenture India, went a step further. Their Maternity Returners Program helped ease new parents back into the workforce by providing career guidance, so that they could tap into ideal re-entry roles. Along with flexible timing for women, it has also tied up with creches to make life easier for the mothers.

“These programmes help us retain our employees for longer periods of time, and also increase productivity. It makes sense to bring back good performers who understand the company and have worked with us. The flexible work arrangement is not just applicable to mothers but also women who take a break to study, take care of elders or any other personal reasons,” says Prithvi Shergill, head, human resources, Accenture India.

Still a long way to go Chahal, however believes that it is too soon to celebrate. “Unlike in the West, organisations in India do not have creches for women within the office space. The concept of flexible work schedules is only beginning to catch on. It is still very difficult for women to stick to their jobs after pregnancy. It also means a pay cut — the women on flexible schedules don’t get paid as much as other employees do,” she says.

More than 90 per cent of companies in Germany and Sweden have women working on flexible timing. Rajesh AR, vice-president, TeamLease Services, a staffing company that provides human resource solutions, believes that we still have a long way to go. “Companies often set up these initiatives to earn goodwill. Women who are on flexible timing arrangement are not put on important projects. Larger projects need dedication and longer working hours,” he says.

But most women aren’t complaining. The only grouse is that while juggling work, family and children, their social life takes a backseat. “My friends are cross with me. I don’t meet them for months.” says Puri. “I tell them to hang on. I’ll probably catch up with them when I’m 60 and then we’ll all play bridge together.”

This was originally published in DNA

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