Aparna K*, a techie with a top IT firm in Chennai, is now a homemaker. After giving birth to a son two years ago, Aparna could not extend her maternity leave nor was she able to get work from home facility approved.
"The reason they gave me then was that they did not have enough laptops and were unable to give me VPN access," she said. Soon after she joined, Aparna quit her job to take care of her son.
This is the story of hundreds of women who had to quit work to take care of children and elderly just because the company could not be supportive or flexible enough.
This is why the work from home concept, executives point out, could be the gamechanger. It has the potential to bridge the gender gap, one of the biggest challenges firms are facing. This will also enable gig economy for tech workers as remote work gains more acceptance.
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Due to COVID-19, work from home has become the 'new normal'. Since the virus outbreak intensified in March followed by lockdown, IT firms have been forced to facilitate work from home for close to 80-90 percent of its workforce. The sector employs around 50 lakh people.
Most firms including, TCS and Wipro, in their recent media interactions have said there are plans to make this more or less permanent subject to government approval and client permissions.
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That is why, Keshav R Murugesh, global CEO, WNS Global Services, feels the work from home model will enable gig economy for IT workers and bring in more women back to work.
How will it create a gig economy?
For one, there is more acceptance for remote working from employer and enterprise customers, which was not there earlier. Though the permissions are subject to change, clients would now be inclined to extend permissions compared to before.
From the point of view of firms, collaboration was a challenge. For instance, it would be difficult to deliver a project with a distributed team spread across the country. That is why teams are by design are in the same locations with few members working in other regions.
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But work from home has forced the IT firms to take care of that problem as firms are investing in collaboration tools.
"Basically, work from home has helped us learn how to collaborate remotely and how to deliver product with people distributed," said R Srikrishna, CEO, Hexaware Technologies.
According to Srikrishna, this is what would enable creation gig economy for IT workers. A hiring consultant pointed out that this would push qualified professionals, who want more flexibility, to be independent creating a network of professionals.
"It will also allow people post retirement to come in and work. It will allow highly educated women who are house wives and not working and not part of the employment base today actually coming and available to work," said Murugesh.
Will it really bring women back to work?
Number of women who enter the workforce drop by more than 50 percent by the time they reach CXO level, according to a report by NPR. Another women executive pointed out that two years after women enter into the workforce, close to 20-30 percent of the women drop out of work at every level. "By the time they reach the CXO level, there are hardly anyone left," the executive added.
While few companies are supportive, there are more cases of women being fired post maternity and marriage or forced to quit due to lack of flexibility.
"Work from home is an enabler as it offers flexibility to a lot more population than it is now. Not just women but also those who cannot travel long distances. So it does give potential for diversity," said Manoj Bhat, CFO, Tech Mahindra.
Geetha Kannan, former IT executive and co-founder, Wequity, a platform that helps women in tech get back to work, said: "This does increase opportunities for women who want to get back to work and push some of them to at least think about it. But this in itself will not improve diversity."
There are several concerns. For instance, will there be a discrimination between people working remotely and those working in office. In terms of work assignments, would both be given equal opportunities for critical and important projects. More importantly, parameters for measuring performance.
"These are few aspects that needs to be looked into," Kannan said, adding that companies have to come up with the right strategy and usher in policy changes for it to be a success.Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak here