Work from Home (WFH) during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A New Challenge to Human Resource Department in relation to Women Employees in India
Chapter And Authors Information
As the world is fighting its battle against Covid-19, it is also witnessing lot of socio economic, environmental and political changes. The lockdown imposed in the country to prevent the spread of the virus and control it has also brought changes in our lifestyle, functioning, behaviour and attitude. One of the major changes seen is in the way how organizations have adapted to the new normal of the – Work from Home culture. In order to ensure the safety of the health of the employees and their family members, majority of the organizations have shifted to work remotely. But has the work from home culture been beneficial for every individual. Women in India have been subjugated to the patriarchal way of life, where managing household responsibility becomes a primary concern for any woman. With the changing situation of women in India, women have got opportunities to step out of their houses and work in different fields. Though such a section of women is very less in India, the very fact that working women still have to prioritize their family responsibilities over their career has become a norm. The lockdown has brought about the new normal of work from home, however it has only doubled the burden for working women where now she not only works from home but also works for home, both at the same time. This has led to increase in issues of severe stress, anxiety, fear and depression among women. Because of the work from home culture, the women now feel more pressurized as they now have to manage official responsibilities and at the same time play the role of the primary care provider at the house as well. While confinement of work from home has not only led to double burden on the women, it has also paved way to several other issues concerned to women – like harassment at virtual workplace. With increase in online meetings and calls, women are now becoming subject to online harassment. The cases of online harassment have increased during the lockdown period. Though work from home situation has its benefits, it also has many disadvantages especially when it comes to the working women of the society. In order to address all these issues, the organizations and families collectively should play an important role in ensuring that work from home culture does not negatively affect the physical and emotional well being of the women. In this regard, the paper throws light upon how the work from home culture has impacted the working women in India and what steps can be taken to address those issues.
Covid-19, harassment, lockdown, organizations, patriarchy, responsibilities, women
In India with a growing economy and an increasing GDP, the working age population is estimated to rise to over 800 million marks by 2050. In spite of this, only 20.3% of women aged 15 and above are active members of the total labour force of the country as of 2020 (Kamdar, 2020). The low rate of participation of women in the labour force of the Indian economy is basically due to several restrictive cultural and social norms regarding women working outside their home.
Moreover, the patriarchal system in India has been an obstacle which has disallowed women to follow their dreams. In a society which is mostly dominated by men, women have found very less opportunities to grow because of the several kinds of inequalities faced by them during their life. Moreover, at the work front factors like gender discrimination, gender wage gap, policies related to workplace safety and in flexible working hours have immensely led to the decline of participation of women in the country’s workforce (Kamdar, 2020).
When already the working women in India were facing several problems at their workplace, the Covid-19 pandemic did not make life any easier for them. According to a survey report Women@Work by Aspire for Her and Sustainable Advancement, 2021, women in India have said that their work-life balance has been negatively affected to a large extent by the Covid-19. The findings of the report suggested that out of the total number of women 800 women who were interviewed, 38.5 percent of them informed that they were very much negatively affected as their overall household workload had increased starting from domestic chores to providing care to the children and the elderly during the Covid-19 lockdown. On the other hand, 43.7 percent of women said that they were not able to manage their work-life balance efficiently (Press Trust of India, 2021). The work from home set up introduced during the Covid-19, was in the interest of protecting every individual’s health but unfortunately the working women in India did not seem to have gained much out of this new normal. As the report suggested rather the life of the working women became more difficult with the “work from home” culture.
A study by Pink Ladder as cited by Akshatha M, in an economic daily of the country revealed that in India out of ten women four women faced severe stress and anxiety because of the new normal of the work from home culture (Pink Ladder, 2020). The findings of the study showed that the women felt that they were becoming victims of the “double burden syndrome” due to WFH, a situation where the women have to juggle between her professional work and her domestic chores. Work from home has become a burden for the women because at home a woman primarily has to play the role of the caregiver before indulging herself in any other kind of work. When people work from office, it draws a line between professional duties and household work, but now the work from home concept has removed any such difference. Thus, the work from home culture has made it more difficult for the women to maintain their work life balance.
The working women are now feeling the pressure of handling the family responsibilities and the professional responsibilities. Women have to constantly switch their roles in a work from home environment, where she needs to take care of her children, the elderly and every other member of the family. At the same time, she has to ensure that she is present to attend the online office meetings and revert to her employer’s mail on time. According to a McKinsey report from October 2020, most of the women in the US who were working from home due to the Covid-19, informed that they felt more physically tired and burned out than their male counterparts, which resulted in more women thinking of quitting their jobs. The scenario was no different in India. Working women in India also faced the same situation, which forced many of them to think about quitting their jobs as they were not able to cope up with the double shift work pressure of managing the house and the office at the same time (Akshatha, 2021).
Earlier, before leaving for work women would usually take care of the household responsibilities. But now under the work from home culture, because of the constant presence of children and elders, a woman has to take care of them all over the day along with her office work. And now even the concept of flexible hours is not that effective, as the work from home situation has forced individuals to work even during the odd hours of the day.
The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced us all to the new normal – remote work or the work from home concept. With the rising cases of Covid and the lockdown restrictions imposed by the government, majority of the companies have shifted to the new normal of working from home. But this new normal comes along with a number of challenges which needs to be addressed in the right way. A Bengaluru based company conducted a survey across states and cities of India and found that nearly 70% of them are working from home. 95% of them said that they even work during the weekends as well. Thus, the new normal includes working for longer hours which goes beyond the regular office timings, long work-related telephonic calls, online meetings and working even on weekends. The survey found that the new normal was giving rise to a trend, a trend which was considered to be burden for majority of the employees, especially women, as they had to manage their house as well along with their professional commitments (Choudhary, 2020). One of the other factors leading to burden on women in managing their work life balance is the unavailability of domestic house helps due to the lockdown situation.
The work from home culture has changed how the organizations work and function. Prior to the Covid-19 situation, time was allotted for organizing meetings and calls in the offices. And these planned events would happen during that allotted time period itself. Also, the work hours were defined, after which the employees would return back to their residences. But now because of the work from home culture there are number of calls and online meetings to be attended in a day, other than the daily office work which adds to the already existing household obligations (Choudhary, 2020).
2. Sexual Harassment in virtual Workplace
Other than the issues of work-life balance faced by working women due to the work from home idea, the other problem faced by them is of online sexual harassment. Due to the Covid-19, majority of the organizations have adopted the work from home routine. As a result, all the meetings with colleagues, suppliers, vendors, customers are happening through online mode of communication. The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a new normal – which is the work from home culture or the remote work situation; accordingly, an employee’s house now turning into his/her new workplace. Online technologies like Zoom, Google Meet and Skype are now the favourite tools for conducting office meetings (Chadha & Sama, 2021).
Female employees now are not left with any option but have to share their personal contact details with their counter parts for the several business meetings which they have to attend. Because of this, incidents of online sexual harassment have increased during the lockdown time. People might think that harassment can happen only in the physical presence. But sending lewd texts, personal pictures which are inappropriate in nature, sending unwanted voice messages or wearing clothes which are unprofessional during official video calls also leads to act of sexual harassment (Choudhary, 2020). Thus, the risk which women faced in the office premises, they feel the same even when they are working from home, without any change in the situation about safety for women in the country.
Considering the fact that the work from home culture is going to stay here for a longer time because of the global pandemic, measures have to be taken to address the issue of sexual harassment in virtual workplace. Experts suggest that because of the lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the cases of sexual harassment at workplace have drastically gone up. The sexual offenders have now discovered a new online method to abuse and threaten women (Chadha & Sama, 2021). According to a recent survey conducted by a European Parliamentary Research Service (Lombo, Navarra, & Fernandes, 2021) in twelve European Union members state, women reported that they were now being subjected to new forms of online sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in virtual workplace would include: taking screen shots during online video calls without prior permission and misusing them on social media, situations where female employees are asked by their managers to attend late hours online meetings after regular office hours, sending inappropriate pictures/images and so on. In India, the National Commission for Women reported that since the Covid-19 pandemic, incidents of online sexual harassment have increased by fivefold (Express New Service, 2021).
3. What Next?
Keeping in mind the fact, that the Covid-19 global pandemic is going to stay here for some more time and so will the work from home culture stay along with it. Thus, it becomes very important to address the negative side of the new normal – “The Work from Home” culture.
While this new normal maybe very suitable to reduce company’s operating costs for jobs requiring less physical presence, proximity of employees, required safety of physical distancing; What does this change and shift in work culture mean to employees who are used to a routine of stepping in/out of home at a regular time, enjoy the work culture, organisations environment and have a perfect work-life balance? For many working women in India, going out of home to work itself is a very empowering experience, their ‘My time – personal time’, away from four walls of the house and familial tensions, to make friends, meet new people, time to recharge and reboot themselves… It has taken years of struggle for women of many communities, cultures in India to get out / break away from the traditional roles of home makers to become a confident working women going out of home alone for hours together, having their own place called work place, office and for families to accept that Wife/ daughter in law/ mother may not be home all the time to serve, help and/or carry household responsibilities!!! (Mehta, 2020)
The work from home will be very suitable to those who have adequate space, supportive home environment and technology to function from home, young children or persons to take care of, what about huge number of women especially those who may not have physical or congenial, facilitative environment to work from home, difficulties in prioritising work over household responsibilities, handling dynamics of power of work, their positions in the organisations vis-à-vis position at home affecting interpersonal relationships… WFH culture post pandemic may become a big challenge for women especially in a patriarchal society like India!! (Mehta, 2020)
With introduction of the work from home culture, more number of women have been able to join the workforce of the nation, as now they do not have to commute long distances daily and can stay close with their families and still work for big organizations. In this way women also get an opportunity to reduce their expenses and save a good amount of their income. Thought these are some of the bright sides of the work from home aspect, more women have complained about the severe stress, anxiety and pressure which they have felt due to the work from home situation. Thus, a collective effort has to be taken by the organizations, the staff and the family members to tackle this issue.
At every household, the daily chores should be shared equally between the male and the female member. The mindset, that women are solely responsible for all the domestic work should be changed. Within the families the task should be divided in a proper way so that the woman alone does not face all the pressure and she is able to meet her professional commitments as well. Women employees can also earmark a specific work area in their house to avoid other kinds of distractions.
Moreover, the organizations have a crucial role in supporting the women employees to maintain their work-life balance. The organizations should come up with policies which promote healthy work from home culture. Organizations can adopt the following measures to help their employees, especially women employees to cope up with the stress of work from home scenario:
– Meetings should be scheduled only during the regular working hours,
– No late evening calls or meetings should be scheduled,
– Proper lunch hour or breaks should be given even in work from home situation and
– No tasks should be given to any staff on weekends or holidays.
When we adapt to a new normal, only with time we come to know about the flaws in the system. In the same way organizations should also come up with strict policies to protect women from sexual harassment in virtual workplace. More awareness and training programs should be done in order to sensitize the male members on such issues.
Work from home culture would be very advantageous if it is implemented in the right manner. But it cannot be done by any one person. The responsibility for that lies with the organization, the male members of the society, the other family members and the policy makers. Collectively everyone should develop a positive work from home culture which would encourage more women to join the workforce. In the long run this would be very effective for the economy of the country. Finally no matter what policies are formed, the work from home culture will succeed only when the social mindset that – “A woman has to work as well as manage all the domestic household chores on her own” changes.
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