Because I am a woman

Agile organisations: A millennial reality

Being agile means going way beyond granting flexi-days to expecting mothers or caregivers.
Published at legal search and consulting firm Vahura.

What does it really mean for organisations to apply agile mindset at workplace? How can they really empower mothers and even husbands waiting to become strong contributors to the workforce?

At the outset, organisations today are increasingly realising the fact that all of us, working women and men, are different from each other. We live at differing distances from the space called ‘office.’ We have unique passions, learning needs, and responsibilities towards our families. Some of us are parents to young children, others are caregivers to grandparents. Some are in early 20s looking at marriage, and others are in their late 20s or early 30s at the cusp of motherhood. Some live in nuclear set ups in flats, while others live with family members in the neighbourhood.

All this makes organisations living organisms of men and women with diverse needs and pressures. But all of us are united by one thing – a will to work. We all want to deliver quality output, become earning members of our families, and maintain an identity outside of being a parent, homemaker, or someone’s wife. However, we are struggling to deliver work via the traditional models of working in the face of new pulls and pressures. These include nuclear families, long commutes, frequent work travels, always-on work mode thanks to technological advancements, and hence higher stress levels.

Acknowledging this reality of the current times, many organisations have begun to actively talk about the downside of rising fatigue in their workforce. Few are even trying to arrive at sustainable solutions that can address this millennial reality. After all, loyalty and productivity from employees is critical to any organisation’s growth. One such sure shot workable solution is an organisations’ openness to allow flexibility and practice agility at workplace by tweaking existing systems and processes.

What does that mean?

It means downsizing the requirement of employees’ physical presence to ensure quality deliverables. It means giving the employees space and freedom to work on flexible time schedules. It means using technology to enable location neutral working conditions. For example, say a mother working remotely from morning 8.30am to 2pm, then from 5pm to 8/9pm. She’s working as many hours, even more than an employee in office. She’s connected and available through her laptop, smartphone, and cloud-sharing tools. And she plays mother to her growing children while meeting her professional responsibilities.

So agility at workplace is a happy marriage between employees’ circumstances and business needs. It means allowing each employee to lay out the flexi-terms that suits him/her because what is flexible for one may not mean anything to the other. It means going beyond granting flexi-days to expecting mothers or caregivers only. For example, if a working woman’s husband needs flexi-days, he should be able to avail them to avoid 2 hours of gruelling commute. It means empowering employees to work to their strengths, happy and de-stressed. It’s very simple. De-stressed employees, de-stressed lives, higher productivity, higher margins.

Taking a step further, agile mindset at work also means an organisation’s openness to employee’s leading fulfilling lives. For example, Pinsent Masons’s flexible lawyering arm, Vario, proudly claims that it allows its employees the time and space to satisfy their entrepreneurial desires.

Let’s assume that an organisation has taken the first step. Flexi-work arrangements have been agreed to. However, we often see that employees do not access these arrangements and policies. Why? Because they fear that if they avail flexi-options, they’ll be considered less than fully committed. They fear that they may get overlooked for key roles. They feel their negotiating power for bonus will be compromised. I learnt recently that there’s even a term for such fear. It’s called ‘flexibility stigma.’ It’s real. A remote-working woman cannot work confidently if she didn’t feel secure that her boss believed in her commitment. And her boss has to believe that just because his employee worked from home, her work quality was not going to be different from when she reported to office physically. Hence, the success of flexi-work lies in the employer’s agile mindset to believe that flexi-work results in higher productivity.

A Gartner millennial report suggests that companies who have adopted flexible working acknowledge their earlier reservations about staff slacking off are baseless. In any case, there are many ways for organisations to watch their employees’ progress and make remote working more involved. For example, at Vahura, India’s leading legal talent management firm, employees wake up to an email thread that tells everyone what the other is doing. All team members know who is on road or mid-air, at client locations or home. It gives every employee the freedom to do their work at their pace from anywhere while creating a sense of responsibility. This also brings down the abuse of remote working. I’d say the firm’s authentic willingness to trust their employees is the key driver of its flexi-model’s success.

So practicing an agile mindset in the workplace means taking a conscious call, every day, each time before the employer hands over a brief – “Can this be done flexibly without coming to the office?”

I’m reminded of Ricardo Semler, CEO, Semco Partners’ thoughts in his Ted Talk How to run a company with (almost) no rules. The Brazilian business magnate says, “Why are we building these headquarters? Is it not an ego issue that we want to look solid, big and important? And that we can drag you two hours across the town because of it?”

Does this still sound difficult or even annoying?

Yes it does. No surprise.

We’re all prisoners of our childhood. The greatest barrier to embracing flexi-work models is the cultural mindset. Hardly encouraged to think independently, when a child says he/she’s decided on something, pop comes the remark, “Oh really? You think you know what you’re doing? We’ll tell you what to do.” If a remote-working mother told her children that they cannot manage home work on their own without her sitting next to them, what kind of mindset do you think those two would develop? Years of conditioning towards dependence and conformity creeps into the workplace where people don’t trust the capabilities of the very employees they hire. They feel the need for people to turn up and ‘show’ that they’re working.

The reality is that conventionally organised businesses cannot avoid embracing agile mindset at workplace. They have to break the mental barrier against remote working. Whether a woman works from her desk at home or her husband works from office, both bring their skills and talent to the organisation from different locations. The good part is that a number of flexi-programs have been successful where productivity and team deliverables have increased exponentially. Look at examples of agility around you.

A word of caution here. We are seeing companies take initiatives such as loading offices with colourful cushions, loungers, sleep pods, getting flash mobs for jhatkas and matkas, or allowing smart casual wear. That’s great. But doing that while resisting flexi-work models will not serve the purpose.

One thing is for sure. Adopting flexi-work models is no longer a favour or perk – it is here to stay!

This article was published at Vahura.

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