Can hybrid and remote work models provide opportunities to address women’s participation in the workforce?

At a learning roundtable discussion held by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) and Zoom, panelists deliberated upon the falling participation of women in the labour force, and the potential policy measures that can enable hybrid work and other such model

Can hybrid and remote work models provide opportunities to address women’s participation in the workforce?

Tuesday December 21, 2021,

7 min Read

COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the nature of work across the world. A July 2020 McKinsey study found that female job loss rates due to COVID-19 have been about 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates globally. Meanwhile, an ILO report from July 2021 forecast that by the end of the year, there would be 13 million fewer women at work globally, while men’s employment will begin to recover to 2019 levels.

Despite this grim outlook, work models are evolving, and there are reports of new opportunities emerging. In India, owing to preventative lockdowns, remote and hybrid work opportunities have increased, with a recent NASSCOM survey reporting that around 70 percent of organisations are looking at hybrid work models even beyond the pandemic.

To know more about this concerning fall in women’s participation in the economy, and to understand what policy measures and solutions can be used to make emerging modes of remote and hybrid working work for women, IWWAGE and Zoom, along with HerStory, hosted a learning roundtable discussion on the topic ‘Hybrid & Remote Work Models and Women’s Participation in the Economy’.

Moderated by Kanika Jha Kingra, Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager from IWWAGE at LEAD, the panel comprised Rituparna Chakraborty, Co-founder and EVP at TeamLease Services Ltd; Sona Mitra, Principal Economist, IWWAGE at LEAD; Angela D’Souza, Program Manager, ITI Ecosystems and Youth Programs at Quest Alliance; Salonie Muralidhara Hiryur, Senior Coordinator at SEWA Cooperative Federation; and Iravati Damle, Director, Government Affairs at Zoom Video Communications, Inc.

Hybrid and remote work: Challenges and opportunities

The panelists spoke about the cross-sectoral, structural constraints facing women who are entering the workforce today.

Discussing the historical nature of these constraints, TeamLease’s Rituparna spoke about how in the early days of the pandemic, women who were already in the formal job market left due to reasons such as an increased burden of care work. She then explained how remote work after the first wave opened up opportunities for job market outsiders, including women. Based on her work at TeamLease Services, certain sectors that she highlighted included marketing, content writing, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and financial and banking services. She also emphasised that there was a window of opportunity in technology-based roles in areas such as cloud computing, AI, engineering, and cybersecurity.

From her experiences at SEWA Cooperative Federation, Salonie mentioned the challenges experienced by women’s co-operatives and women in the informal economy. She highlighted the triple crises of health, economy, and care that were caused by the pandemic. Further, she also spoke about the issue of the digital divide, and elaborated on how during the pandemic, women in the cooperative sector were able to pivot to different markets after being trained to use digital tools such as Zoom and leveraging hybrid working models.

Angela spoke of her experience working with vocational training institutes and Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs). With regard to skilling, she spoke about Quest Alliance’s work with women who had dropped out of the formal workforce, and the various difficulties faced in moving to a virtual setup, particularly for women, owing to issues ranging from a lack of tech literacy and limited access to devices.

Solutions and use cases

Rituparna spoke about how remote and hybrid work can increase flexibility, and how it is important to resolve infrastructural problems such as bandwidth to provide broadband and fast internet facilities. In this vein, she also mentioned that access to tools and devices should be looked into by companies’ HR. Further, she emphasised the need to increase inclusivity through distributed infrastructure, whether this be with regard to choosing calendars or for organisations to decentralise working spaces in order to facilitate remote work.

In this context, IWWAGE’s Sona spoke about working hours and work-life balance, and how policies that enable reasonable working hours might enable higher uptake in remote working. She spoke about how the care crisis needs to be taken into account, and how women with children will have to be supported with enabling policies in organisations and elsewhere.

With regard to enablers, Angela spoke about digital literacy and fluency, and explained that life skills such as confidence and critical thinking are critical to enable an inclusive future of work for women. Her remarks also touched upon the need to confront issues like virtual harassment, and the responsibilities of organisations towards their women workers.

Salonie highlighted success stories and learnings in the adoption of digital technologies from SEWA’s work on ground. She spoke about how co-operatives are an efficient way of technology and knowledge transfer, and hand-holding through procurement policies, capacity building, and social protection for home-based workers by way of access to care and healthcare facilities will need to be prioritised. She also emphasised the need for continuous research and evidence to generate potential solutions that keep up with the speed of change in this space.

Finally, Iravati spoke about how Zoom is focusing on building the right products for the hybrid future, to make the product as accessible and intuitive to use as possible. The vision is to enable women and other groups to rapidly learn and deploy video communications technologies. One of the solutions under development, she mentioned, was ‘Zoom Rooms’, which are modern and dynamic workspaces built for hybrid teams, aimed at bridging the gap in advantages between remote workers and those who adopt hybrid working. Further, she endorsed the idea of a holistic plan that encompasses caregiving and work-life balance, and collaboration between different stakeholders to achieve this.

Recommendations to create an enabling environment

Rituparna mentioned that a focus from the government on labour codes and an overall emphasis on the processes of formalisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, and human capital improvement will benefit women. She also mentioned that product interventions for India have to handle the realities of low-cost devices and low bandwidth. In this context, she emphasised the need for interactive tools that will help bring more diversity to the Indian workforce.

Thereafter, Sona highlighted the need for enablers in the form of products customised for Indian needs, and the need to help women manage home and caregiving responsibilities. Finally, she concluded by mentioning the importance of labour rights and social protection mechanisms for workers across sectors.

Angela reiterated that answers must boil down to access, comfort, and confidence in use of digital services for women. Here, she mentioned community digital library projects and simultaneous education programmes to help women use handheld devices. Second, she also mentioned infrastructure like electricity, internet infrastructure, day-care support, and other such enablers as a means to ensure that women get the support they need. Her third recommendation focused on the need for ‘listening organisations’ — those that create spaces to hear women and take into account their concerns.

Wrapping up the discussion, Salonie made recommendations on how digital tools can reach women in the last mile to help sustain their livelihoods. She mentioned how organising women into small collectives with social protection can create a conduit for knowledge and technology transfer. Her next recommendation was the promotion of an enabling environment for women’s groups which can help mobilise smaller enterprises as well. She concluded by mentioning the need to build with and by women, to make intuitive and usable products that can facilitate women’s participation.