Enabling Women to truly choose

There has been a lot of back and forth in the Indian blogosphere of late, on the choices of SAHMs, on the choices of working moms. SAHMs wrote in justifying their choice to be with their children all day and vehemently denied that their brains were rotting away. Working mothers rose to defend themselves, on why they chose to/need to work, and how their children were not neglected, at the same time.

I choose not to take a position with either side. Personally, I am not yet at a stage where I need to make that choice. Also, I truly believe that each woman makes the choice for herself based on the situation that she is in, and how best she can handle it, at that point in time.

However, I do believe, that women (and men), by positioning the debate as between SAHMs Vs Working Moms, are doing a huge disservice to themselves. Each individual’s choice is important to herself and her family, but if we are to examine the phenomenon as a whole, we need to take a step back. We need to step back at the larger picture and understand the whole background of where these choices spring from, what enables these choices and whether all choices are truly choices.

To do this, we need to look at a couple of things. Lets first look at work itself. How do we define work? If we define work as a service that is provided by someone, in return for a measurable compensation, that leaves out all work at home which may be compensated by love, security, internal satisfaction – but is not measurable as compensation. On the other hand, if we define work as any service that is productive, i.e. “it occupies the person’s time”, it is too vague and includes leisure activities as well. Perhaps then it could be defined as any activity that occupies your time, but is useful to one other person atleast. Looked at this way, home making becomes a service like any other, since cooking, cleaning, child-care and education, care for the elderly, paying bills are all services that offer great value to other people.

Great. We agree then, that there is work which is performed outside the home, and work which is performed at home. Things become more dicey however, when we start assigning a value to both kinds of work.

Work outside the home is usually paid, (though a small fraction could be volunteer work). Further, work outside the home often involves skills that one has been trained for, be it mechanical work, nursing, management positions, clerical work, anything. Work outside the home also allows one to interact with other people, gain new friends, learn new things. Working inside the home, offers tremendous benefits to one’s own family. It is not usually viewed as a specialised skill that one is trained for, though many would argue that cooking for example is a skill that not everyone has. Typically, it meant less learning, less fresh interaction, though for an urban, affluent person today, facilities such as online learning mean that being home is no longer a barrier to learning. Still, it is not usually associated with one, compensation and two, specialised skills. It is not surprising then, that as human beings acquire more and more specialised skills, and want more and more things to buy, work outside the home is viewed as a more superior activity, even if we argue that home-making is equally critical for a society as a whole.

Traditionally, men did the work outside the house, and women, the home-making work, and everything ‘seemed’ hunky-dory. UNTIL. Women also started acquiring more specialised skills, and started feeling left out of an opportunity to use these. At the same time, they could not discard their traditional roles of home-making.

The situation gets more complex with the arrival of a child. Biologically, for the first six months to a year, definitely the mother is more qualified to take care of the child, until the child is weaned. Post this period, some women choose to stay back and some, to get back to work. Instead of deriding either choice, we should look at what is it that enables some women to get back to work, while others decide not to.

First of all, it is so deeply ingrained in most of us, that the mother is the primary care-giver, that it is very difficult to even imagine a situation, where at the end of say, 9 months, both parents really think, “Hey, which one of us should take a career break?” (In cases where the couple thinks its essential for a parent to be with the child, and not leave the child at a day-care). The society we live in today, does not recognise men as suitable care-givers. Men are usually treated as children themselves, needing care! Where are the companies that offer paternity leave? Or at a much smaller scale, how many companies appreciate men taking time off to care for a sick child? It is somehow much easier for women employees to ask for such things. This is ofcourse a double-edged sword – while women employees find it easier to be “accomodated”, they may also be viewed as not ambitious enough/not CEO material. These attitudes, around us, and internalised by us, make the mother the default caretaker. Naturally then, the “choice” falls upon her alone.

To my mind, this is not a complete choice. It forces almost every woman to make the choice, AND it does not allow men this choice, in most cases. I can just imagine the brouhaha that would be created by friends, family, colleagues – if ever a man decided to be a SAHD. Its not an easy choice, and most women recognise that in their hearts. Again, in the Indian culture atleast, the perception of man as primary bread-winner is still strong. Most women marry someone who earns more than them, if not equally. Hence, when it comes down to dropping a job, it is a far more difficult option for the man who is the primary bread-winner, and expected to play this role well.

Then, what about the parents who decide that its not imperative for them to spend all day with an infant? For those who have their parents around, its a blessing. For others, they need to depend on day-care centres, which is still very much an emerging industry in India, and has all the unpredictability of an emerging industry. A few bright stars, and largely inconsistent quality, no 100% assurance for the rest. Linked with “mom-primary-care-giver” the absence of good quality day-care centres in sufficient numbers is another reason why women choose not to go back to work.

Again, if you are a parent who decides that its fine to leave your child in day-care, our society today doesn’t always respect those choices. There will always be a 100 people around you, who tell moms especially, that you’ve abandoned your baby, if in not so many words. Its easy to say that who cares what the world thinks? But these young moms are often battling with themselves, as they make a difficult choice. Its even more difficult for them to confront other people, who all think they know better. Unsupportive families (husbands/in-laws) could be another problem for women who want to get back to work, but find little help at home.

We also need to look at the way our workplaces are structured. Most workplaces are structured around getting things done in a particular way, at a particular time. They focus on the means, not the ends. This leaves little options for flexibility in timings, place of work etc. On the other hand, if organisations were to focus on the ends, and allow employees various means of achieving them, both women and men could blend their work and home lives so much better. One may ask ofcourse, why should companies do this? Well, companies should do this not just to be women-friendly. Companies should do this because any company which is family friendly offers its employees a great reason to stay back. Everyone knows how much harder it is to re-hire and re-train for a position, as opposed to an existing employee. Now, even if this employee were to take a 6 month break, it may still be worthwhile for the company to manage those 6 months by allocating the work among others. A new person would take up 4 of those 6 months settling into the groove anyways. This may ofcourse be easier for some jobs (especially white collar) than others. But if a company has this mindset, options could always be found. For routine jobs, for example, temporary workers could be used.

Once all these are addressed – families truly have options to choose whether someone should stay at home, if yes, who should, and if not, how should the situation be managed, or whether a combination of being at home, and going out to work is feasible. Ofcourse, there may be some lucky women today, who are in this situation and have chosen to stay at home, after evaluating all options. Good for them! They are probably highly educated women in any case, who will not face trouble findings jobs after a few years. Until the base issues are addressed however, it is completely wrong on our part to frame the debate as being beteen working moms and SAHMs. By talking this way, we do a huge disservice to both sides, and only hurt these women, both of whom are doing the best that they can.

Rather than focusing on which camp of women is in the right, we should be addressing the base issues, which each of us can do, in a small way. I am putting down below some thoughts on what we can do, feel free to add on more!

1. Lobby in your company for paternity leave/extended paternity leave. (where maternity leave is already a norm). Talk to HR informally. Get people atleast talking about it. Only when workplaces start recognising men as dads, will men too truly be able to get involved in child care. Atleast they should have the option. That in turn will relieve the pressure on women.

2. Women – Try and avoid positioning yourself as the sole authority/responsibility for child care. Ofcourse, this depends on how supportive the husband is, but atleast internally, we have to start believing, not just saying, that two people bring in a child to this world, and beyond the biologically dictated breast-feeding, there are many things men can do, and do well.

3. If you are single or dont have kids yourself, don’t look at people in your workplace, who have children as getting some special benefits. Kids are the way for society to grow. Read Bitch Phd’s fantastic post on this subject here. Instead of feeling envious of people who take time off due to a kid’s emergency, why not lobby for the workplace to be more fair to everyone and ensure a good work-life balance? Don’t try to put them down, try to bring your needs up instead ! This will help so much to avoid a situation where working women are seen as easing off. It will instead help to establish that everyone has a life and needs time to attend to it, outside of work.

4. Stop believing that men have a special duty to be THE bread-winner in the family, and stop expecting that the man you marry must make more money than you do. Unless men achieve freedom from prescribed gender roles too, women alone will not – we will only end up doing both jobs. Start wondering to what extent gender really dictates the roles that you take up.

5. Entrepreneurs amongst you – maybe child-care is a good business for you to think of! We would all benefit by having more good quality day-cares in all areas, rather than in select upmarket areas only. Think about it.

6. Again, if you are someone who runs their own business, see what you can do to make your workplace more family friendly, while getting the work done at the same time.

And lastly, stop discussing which is better – SAHMs or working moms. Recognise the fact that women are still the primary child-carers, atleast in this country. Facing that expectation (internally as well as from society), each woman makes some very difficult choices. Rather than discussing whether individual choices are good or bad, try and see what can be done to help both men and women make the best choices they can.

Lost Business Opportunities

Or – Dying old businesses in Bangalore

Sometimes, when a business does not move at the right time, an opportunity can pass by forever. Well, forever is a long time, and businesses do reinvent themselves, but ofcourse it is much harder to rise out of a bad spell, than it is to move up when one is already doing well. What am I talking about?

Well, if you’re a Bangalorean or someone who has been visiting Bangalore for some period of time, you will know how popular a hangout Brigade Road used to be, and how well frequented, the two malls Mota Arcade and 5th Avenue were. Once upon a time, these were places choc-a-bloc with teenagers hanging out at cool places, and families on their weekend fun shopping. Then came the new malls, Garuda, Bangalore Central, Forum, Sigma…and no one remembered the old malls anymore. I passed by Mota Arcade a couple of days ago, and this is how it looked, desolate and empty, with just a few customers, inspite of outlets like Subway and Coffee World, that could attract a younger audience.

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Where did they lose out? Well, parking in Brigade Road is a nightmare, and families may well prefer places like Forum that offer super-efficient parking, even if they have to drive at bit. The comfortable ambience that the new malls offer, along with attractions like multiplexes (at both Garuda and Forum) is again far superior to the older complexes. So mall going becomes worthwhile since the quality and variety of stores and attractions (movies, household shopping, hanging around, restaurents all together) compensates for the drive there.

I get the feeling that perhaps the old building owners just got too comfortable, hey, we’re on prime real estate, Brigade Road, the center of town, where all the action is. Who could ever want to go elsewhere? But customers did, and more of more of them. Till most of the old places are just dying down. And now, when we’ve got used to these swanky malls with their polished floors, air conditioning, clean loos, and a chance to do everything at once, its going to be far tougher for the old guys to upgrade themselves, even if they want to.

Folks like me, who’ve been in Bangalore awhile, miss the old hangouts, purely out of nostalgia. Every now and then, we hear people talking about the old days, our theatres – Lido, Galaxy, Rex, Symphony – all dead or dying, and all our old hangouts slowly going away. But the truth is that these places just didn’t want to reinvent themselves while they could. They waited too long, until someone else came along and killed them, and now its too late!

The Carnival of Human Resources ! Shoutout!

The 5th Carnival of Human Resources is up, a good read for all those interested in business and workplace issues. I liked especially Hueina Su’s piece on Life Balance Lessons, a piece that all us workers can learn from, but especially women workers who try to do too much in an attempt to be that superwoman. I also have a piece featured here, on the costs of order servicing, and why employees, sales in particular, need to be trained to look at those.

Read, Learn and Enjoy !

Non-stop talking for office dummies

While some friendly banter with colleagues and getting updated on grapevine news can only be a good thing, we have at some workplaces, what I like to call, the “non-stop talking demon”, a species that holds forth on the phone with family and friends all day. Colleagues are invited to hear details of said person’s personal life in excruciating detail – multiple times, lest they forget. Isn’t that what we call too much of a good thing! I approached one such demon therefore, to provide some nuggets of wisdom, which form the contents of this post, Non-stop talking for office dummies, i.e. all you dumb worker souls who cannot match the garrulousness of this species. This is hence, a sort of guest post. Ok, here we begin:

1. Make sure you work in a distant location. Insist that you will work out of an office where your boss doesn’t work, and rarely visits. Lack of real-time boss presence greatly aids conversation.

2. Do your parents live in the same city as you? Make them relocate. If needed, wrangle a job for your dad/mom in Timbuktoo. This is essential to have long heart to heart talks with them, where you update them on your in-laws’ latest visit, your spouse’s perpetual forgetfulness and the antics of the goldfish they gifted you last year.

3. For every one hour of talk, ensure that you get down at your desk for half hour. This way, atleast 30 percent of the time, people will notice you working.

4. Make sure you also talk to your colleagues and ensure they know how mean your spouse is, how terribly your back hurts, and how badly you wanted to go to that Shakira concert but couldn’t afford it. This way they will know how sad your life really is, and not grudge you that 70 percent of time that you spend talking. Besides, its free entertainment for them, they should be grateful.

5. If you have colleagues who complain that the noise disturbs them, refer point four, and remind them that they need to be a) sorry for you b) thankful for the free entertainment.

6. Buy chips. Or chocolates. Or mints. Or anything else you like to munch on. Perpetually. Just talking can be bad for your throat. Throw in some refreshments to keep you going strong.

7. In between stories of your personal life, inform your friends and family of how bad your workload is, and why you can never hope to finish it. This gives you more reasons as to why you should continue talking and not look at work you can never finish anyways.

8. If your friends insist that they need to get off the phone, and back to work, make them feel guilty. You can’t fix them with a look over the phone, but remind them subtly of how they forgot your last birthday.

9. When your boss reminds you that work is undone, tell them you are getting to it. Throw in a few stories of how hard this location is, where people barge in and take up your time, all the time.

10. Make sure you ask your colleagues for a few juicy details of their lives. This way, they won’t feel left out. And you now have more stories to recycle, isn’t that a bonus!

Hah, talking is tough work, I tell you!

Customer Service Indian Style

I believe ATMs in Japan never ever go out of order. Its considered a matter of shame if machines malfunction, and companies go to incredible lengths to ensure that they work round the clock, or repair them immediately, if they ever go out of order. (I read a very interesting article on this some time ago, though I can’t trace it now, maybe readers have some clue?)

In Bangalore ofcourse, ATMs malfunction all the time (apart from the too long queues at key locations). Machines sometimes don’t work, they sometimes run out of cash, and sometimes even swallow your card. And companies seem to take their own sweet time to run repairs — I know some banks where one machine is permanently not working.

So if you can’t ensure that your technology works all the time, and neither can you put it back quickly when it breaks down, whats the next best thing you can do? Why, direct your customers to the nearest alternative ofcourse !

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*(This ATM was working – I guess the notice was up in the event of any breakdowns or maybe just in case of long queues!)

10 reasons why (some) bosses make us hate them!

My friend P sends me this link from the Guardian on the 10 things that bosses hate about their employees. I understand the article is meant as a sort of rejoinder to the usual employee whinings about bosses. But some of it serves to explain just why we hate some bosses !

Some of the points include :

2 .Lack of initiative

“Don’t ask me if you should buy lunch for the client, if the client is coming at noon,” said one infuriated manager. “Call up the client and ask if they want lunch.” Actually that’s not quite what he said: there was a lot more swearing in the original version. Managers absolutely hate being bothered by stuff that really, if you thought about it for even a second, you could work out for yourself. They also hate constant updates and being CCd in on everything. They pay you to do a job – get on with it…

3. Too much initiative

… unless you’re an idiot. A marketing manager for a large educational charity reports that if there’s one thing worse than lack of initiative, it’s completely ignoring instructions to go off and do something else instead. She recently found herself on stage, ready to announce the winner of an award. When the person responsible for counting the votes turned up, he showed off a new, whizzy and completely redundant colour-coded method for counting the votes. Unfortunately, devising the new programme meant he hadn’t actually had time to … count the votes.

This illustrates why you can’t win with certain bosses ! If you don’t do work that they agree with, its basically too less or too much initiative ! Honestly, what this says is that if the results aren’t good, or the boss doesn’t agree with an employee, he/she will trash the person regardless of what actually went wrong. I mean, how many such dolts are there who will actually spend all their time on devising a plan and forget the counting….

5. Disloyalty

Although none of the managers came out and said that they hated their staff for talking over them in meetings, pointing out their errors in public, or preventing the bonus-related project coming in on time, Mann says it’s a major issue. “People used to close ranks, but it doesn’t happen quite as much as it used to,” she says. “Managers usually feel obliged to look after their staff, but if their staff don’t feel the same way, the lack of loyalty is always a problem for the boss.”

I don’t think a boss can demand loyalty. You either command loyalty, or you don’t. You just can’t conjure it up, or make employees think that they “need” to be loyal to you. This reeks of old school mentality where you stayed with a boss for a lifetime and moved up with him. But today, bosses change, subordinates change, companies go through mergers, teams change, roles change. There can be admiration for a mentor, loyalty to a team, but it has to be earned. It is no longer automatic that a person stays loyal to the job or team they are allotted into.

8. Petty lying

Saying that you missed the call because your mobile has run out of power. That you didn’t get the email. That you’ve sent the report but there must be a technical glitch. That the meeting has run over and it’s not worth you coming back to the office. That you’ve lost two big taxi receipts. That you’re working from home today. That you have to go to a funeral, the dentist, the doctor, your mum’s house, your best friend’s cousin’s wedding. Whatever. The biggest insult is that you think they believe you.

Bah. This is precisely why some bosses suck. If you don’t have good measures to track your employee’s performance, you will feel insecure about them going to a funeral, the doctor, their mum’s house or even to their own funeral. And you won’t believe them ofcourse, because, *gawd* they have a life outside work ! How is that possible ! I feel strongly on this – bosses need to evaluate their employees based on what work is being accomplished, not on how else they spend their time, or whether they are working chained to their desk or in their bathrobes at home.

10. Wanting their job

They spend all their time and energy trying to protect you from the higher-uppers, you spend all your energy complaining about them. And then, on top of that, you want their job? Unforgivable.

Ha ! Everyone wants to move up. Thats a fact of life. Bosses – accept it and stop crying. Figure out instead how you can move up yourself. Your name is not inscribed on that chair for eternity.

The rest of it is just about ok, but whoever wrote this expecting to generate sympathy for bosses can rest assured they’re getting none !

Cost of Order Servicing

For any manufacturing company (or even a large trading company for that matter), one of the critical issues that needs to be managed is estimating orders that will flow in, for a given period, and accordingly managing raw material procurement, production and packaging activities. Ofcourse, today many companies outsource production to a contract manufacturer, but even in this case, production schedules and quantities need to be decided. Wrong estimation can result in an opportunity loss (where orders cannot be serviced), or huge inventories (where produced goods pile up).

No wonder then, that the salesperson, who has his ear closest to the ground, and knows what decisions customers are taking, is an important person in this chain. But one of the funniest things companies do, is to treat the salesperson as a sort of isolated figure, whose primary duty is to go out and evangelise. In these cases, the salesperson is evaluated mainly on the parameter of how much revenue has been generated. When the salesperson is under immense pressure to generate a monthly/quarterly figure which is the sole basis for assessment, no wonder that he/she forgets – that there is a cost to servicing every order.

This isn’t confined to manufacturing alone. Even in the service industry, in consulting for e.g., where I work – sometimes the pressure to generate revenue is so high, that it is tempting to sign up projects that one isn’t really confident of executing. The cost ofcourse is multiple – the team’s morale runs low as they cope with a project they don’t have the skills for; the project runs past its deadline eating up precious time that could have been spent elsewhere and the client is angry at the end of it all, and could end up bad-mouthing the company.

I think the way to control this is to make the salesperson responsible for not just revenues, but also aware of the cost of servicing orders that are generated. Costs could include

– Costs of customisation (does the order need to be separately catered for? If so, at what size is the added cost set off by the added revenue? Is it so small that it is much smaller than the company’s smallest production batch)

– Transaction costs (If the order is by a customer in a really remote location for e.g., will the customer pay the additional shipping charges?)

– Cost of collection (If the customer has a history of delaying payments beyond an acceptable limit)

If salespersons were to be evaluated on a number of factors including the cost of servicing their orders, they would think twice before taking up unviable orders. How may times have I seen back-end employees, like activation teams, supply-chain executives and production managers break their heads and exclaim that the order is just not worth the headache !

Companies put in sophisticated systems for material management, optimising inventory levels and automating production processes. But behind everything is a thought process as to which sphere does the company want to be in. Will it cater to high end customers willing to pay for exclusivity or service? Or is it in the business of the lowest-cost solution? Does it play to the organised or corporate sector? Or is its strength a diversified sales team catering to the small business owner or unorganised back-room operation? Clarity on these, and maintaining this in the face of sales pressures is essential. Too often, the pressure to show YOY growth may result in much earning, but little profitability.

In a company I once worked in, the management was faced with such a problem, and decided on not allowing in any orders below a certain limit, since production and supply of these really small batches was causing immense headache. After all, billing for a 15kg order is not significantly different from that for a 100 tonne order, though the revenues pale in comparison. Salespersons were duly warned not to take in any such orders, and even cautioned that any such orders taken in would not be serviced. Until – one such order was placed by a distant relative of one of the sleeping partners – and the company capitulated though salespersons protested ! I still wonder what message people on the field get when corporate bigwigs do the very thing they warn others against !