Build and redesign flexible work ecosystem to boost women’s employment

Build and redesign flexible work ecosystem to boost women’s employment

‘Work-near-home’ centres being developed by the government must at the very least address infrastructure related challenges.

Authors: Shreya Ghosh and Suhani Pandey
Published: December 25, 2022 in The Times of India

Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi recently evoked his vision of a flexible work ecosystem for women to improve the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR). At a National Labour Conference organised by the Ministry of Labour & Employment, he said, “The country’s labour ministry is preparing its vision for the year 2047 in Amrit Kaal. Flexible workplaces, work from home ecosystem and flexi work hours is the need of the future. We can use systems like flexible workplaces as opportunities for women labour force participation.”

There is no doubt that the pandemic has made work more flexible and this is especially relevant for a country like India, which has a massive services sector and a focused attention on building digital capabilities. A new normal is evident, with hybrid work arrangements continuing even as COVID-19 infection rates are seemingly receding.

In 2021, the Microsoft Work Trend Index predicted that hybrid work was “here to stay”. According to a BCG and Nasscom survey, approximately 65% of IT sector employees want to relocate outside of major cities to bring offices closer to the hometowns of some of their employees. However, many commentators in India complained that not everyone has the right infrastructure at home to work remotely.

Perhaps, to solve this conundrum and to encourage young people to work from relatively smaller cities, many states across India have recently announced policies and projects to build dynamic and flexible spaces of work. The Kerala government is piloting Work Near Home centres which focus on providing working professionals with IT-based shared work centres that attract both locals and the international Malayali diaspora.

In Goa, the IT Department is turning beaches into co-working spaces hoping to promote the culture of #WorkationGoa. For fostering entrepreneurship, states such as Jharkhand and Telangana have created co-working spaces at incubation centres. More states are likely to follow suit, as this trend presents an opportunity for broad based growth across regions, instead of concentrating jobs in megacities. However, we need to incorporate a gender lens into these projects from the very beginning to realise the Prime Minister’s vision and enhance opportunities for women’s participation in the labourforce.

There are many barriers to women’s labour force participation including social norms, time spent on child and elderly care, distance, lack of safety in mobility, limited mentorship, pay gap, mismatch of skills and aspirations, etc. ‘Work-near-home’ centres being developed by the government must at the very least address infrastructure related challenges. These spaces should incorporate gender-responsive design including provision of quality creches, last mile connectivity, safe public transport and adequate sanitation facilities. This might require speeding up the notification of Rules under the Maternity Benefit Act, 2017 and revisiting urban plans from a gender perspective. These centres must also be accessible to the disabled, since they often find it challenging to migrate to other cities away from their families.

Aligning with provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 is critical in this regard. Complementing inclusive infrastructure, other features of the work environment should also be gender intentional. For example, compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act may become complicated at shared work spaces. Clarificatory guidelines from the government might be helpful for the formation and functioning of Internal Committees at such ‘work near home centres’ to ensure workplace safety.

Additionally, women who choose these centres as their workplace must also have access to networking and mentorship opportunities to enable their career advancement and strengthen the local ecosystem of professionals. These government-run facilities can work with the private sector to co-create such programs.

Further, to encourage inclusion from the perspective of gender as well as for people with disabilities in privately-built infrastructure, state governments can consider devising an accreditation model which rates and certifies workplace infrastructure according to its gender intentionality and accessibility features. This model would incentivise building of inclusive infrastructure, but also enhance the quality of these facilities over time as companies will prefer better rated facilities for their employees’ satisfaction.

Today, female labour force participation in India is around 25% according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS 2021) data. We need to work on many levers in tandem to move the needle on this disappointing number. Flexible work is one of the opportunities that the large IT-enabled/BPO service sector in India can tap into to bring in and retain more women in the workforce. As states seek to take advantage of this trend to catalyse local development, a gender responsive and social inclusion approach may also provide a much needed fillip to women’s participation in the IT/ITes and India’s growing information economy.

Authors: Shreya Ghosh is senior policy & advocacy manager at IWWAGE and Suhani Pandey is public policy associate at TQH Consulting