I was recently invited to speak on a webinar on the “Future of Work - For Women” by StartUp Reseau. The topic got me thinking about what the new workplace looks like for women in India, and perhaps across other developing countries. The normalisation of WFH presents a unique opportunity for women who have long received no formal recognition of their home-based work, but it also throws up a number of challenges that we must address. Now more than ever, we will need a more deliberate and strategic review of the culture of our workplaces to be inclusive of women at all levels. Of course, the big challenge here is that our physical workspace is now scattered across individual homes and is much more challenging to define. (I should also clarify that these challenges are not universal to all women and professions but specifically addresses knowledge-based service professions where technology is easily accessible.)
I believe that there is a definite role for a company in supporting women at work, but I wanted to focus this article on the areas for innovative entrepreneurs to support this new WFH workplace. Where can entrepreneurs really innovate on business models to support women in a new WFH office? What are the products & services that can help women grab this opportunity to stay in the workforce?
Work from Home – Work from Anywhere
This has most definitely been seen as one of the best outcomes of the disruption that the current pandemic has caused for women in the workplace. Before the pandemic, WFH was seen as a negotiation in contracts for senior management, or a possibility for specific professions where task based/project work was a possibility. Now, everyone has been forced to adapt and productivity has improved in a number of cases. More importantly, business sees that WFH is a real sustained possibility and jobs can now be structured now to accommodate this changing dynamic. Many women who were unable to work due to family obligations can now find that elusive work/life balance and possibly continue to work. However, the hours of unpaid work that a woman does at home have only substantially increased– and this is something that can be a real challenge. Being at home all the time can also mean an increase in household work for some. And now with the added pressure of working this could lead to a reduced quality of life for some.
Opportunities for Entrepreneurs
Professional child care/elderly care services at home or nearby, & pre- prepared meal services can go a long way in supporting women working from home. With double income households increasing, such services can now be accessed by many more. I also believe this is an opportunity for far more hyper local businesses “by women for women” to emerge. For instance, in several gated communities in India, women have started meal services for their working neighbors and this has not only supported working professionals to continue a full workday, but also created incomes for women at home. I see this as a win-win opportunity for women, but with the recognition that we may need to also work on changing cultural mindsets of the role of a woman at home. This is of course not a new concept, but as we rapidly urbanize, a lot of community-based living norms that were culturally ingrained have been eroded. Apps that facilitate hyper local connectivity are a space to consider for this changing reality.
Another business opportunity I really hope that will emerge from this crisis is the rise of hyper local co-working places. The mushrooming of co-working spaces across the world has been certainly disruptive but most of the co-working spaces have still been located in traditional business hubs that require long commutes. While big business may have been quick to disband their mega office spaces and adapt models to work from home, there are some very real constraints that make this a challenge for many, and for women in particular. The obvious one is that adequate, quiet, exclusive space is a luxury few can access. I must also address the real fear that many women still face at home of abusive family members and the need to maintain adequate distance from them in the day. Businesses may need to start accounting for allowances for employees to access co-working spaces close to home to accommodate our new normal where crowded public transport may not be possible. Finding “an office space” close to home may be the tipping point for women to stay at work.
I also know that the great strides that women have made to have an independent voice has been aided by exposure to wider communities, and a lot of the confident equality has been acquired by engaging in the professional world. For millions of women across India, and especially those from smaller more traditional communities & towns, going to an office is their opportunity to access the world beyond their homes. WFH offers opportunities for some women to access the workplace, but we must ensure that this does not lead to a regression in forcing women from being present and accessing the external physical world. Even the simple option of leaving the home to work in an office in a neighbourhood nearby might make all the difference to some.
If you have suggestions of products & services that will be needed to improve the WFH experience for women, do share them with me! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Author: Urvashi Devidayal, Sankalp Lead (South Asia)