Flexi-attitude: New-age firms bend to keep women staff

In her first year at Cadbury India, Nikhila Rangaswamy found she was expecting a baby. She took four months of maternity leave and later benefited from the flexible working hours the company offered her. Later, in 2008, when Rangaswamy's husband was relocating to another city, Cadbury offered her a unique proposal: work from home. Rangaswamy did so for two years till she returned to Mumbai and rejoined the head office. Hers is a classic example of a bright employee who did not have to leave her job during those crucial life stages a woman goes through-thanks to the flexi-work policies firms have introduced to make such transitions easier.

Rangaswamy, in her 30s today, is VP-HR, talent and organization effectiveness. It is now her turn to ensure the good practices continue. "In my team, there are members who work part-time depending on their life stage. There is also a GenY member who does not have children, but has opted to work four days a week (two from home) so she can spend time with her husband," says Rangaswamy.

Sameena Bansal (name changed), a working mother in her mid-30s, was also fortunate to work with organizations that gave her either time off or flexi-time during important life stages. Prajakta Desai (name changed), another working mother in Mumbai, was glad that she got five months off from the companies she worked for when she became a mother.

Many women today are benefiting from workplace policies designed for them. Companies are trying to attract and retain women talent, which they believe will improve business prospects. The new-age office may house a daycare centre, offer flexi-timings and even give a second-career option to rope back women who may have quit.

At Procter & Gamble (P&G) India, there is a focus on increasing the number of women as well as creating an inclusive work culture through internal women's networks, training sessions and maternity toolkits. "P&G recognizes that it's tough for women to balance new personal responsibilities with each life s t a g e - be it managing a dual career after marriage, child birth or caring for the aged. Thus, we have put in place systems-like flexi-hours-to empower them and foster a culture that meets both business and individual needs," says a P&G spokesperson.

ICICI Bank tries to ensure no discrimination due to life stages like maternity during performance appraisals. Hindustan Unilever has a daycare facility at its Mumbai head office. Cadbury India contributes to external newsletters that reach out to second-career women and enable them to take on flexible roles. "The women's workforce has always been critical to our company's success. We call our consumer 'Anjali', we want to represent Anjali internally as well," says Rajesh Ramanathan, executive director of HR, Cadbury India.

However, Bansal and Desai say offices could do more. "There are some sectors, like IT, and certain corporates that have policies in place, but they are few," says Bansal. "It starts from maternity leave; 81 days is not enough. Sure, it gets extended in most cases but that depends on the boss and his ability to either approve or get internal approvals. Companies miss out on finer, softer aspects-like facilities for lactating mothers, creches. Work from home is an alien concept in most industries. Also, the join-back period can be smoother for a woman trying to work and be a full-time mother." 'Time' is the most stressful part, she adds. "As a working mother, you need to be disciplined and manage both worlds. Your 'end of day' time in most cases is set; any delay and it eats into your 'mom time'."

Desai, a working mother of two in her early 40s, says a big hindrance is strict timings. "By and large companies are sympathetic. What one wants is flexible timings so a mother can balance both roles. Companies are trying to change," she says. Her current office does not have a specific policy for women or mothers, but is flexible. "The focus is on achieving key result areas and not in number of hours put in." But, she says companies need policies on paper and must implement them in spirit.