Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

She is not slowing down

How a senior executive arrived at a four-day work week with some help from her leadership team

A four-day work week in the Indian workplace may seem like a fantasy to most but it did become a reality for at least one person in May. Indu Anand, 44, head of communications and community investment, India, at defence, aerospace and security solutions firm BAE Systems, negotiated a four-day work week. 

Anand was not driven by a commitment to look after an ageing parent or child, or the need for a better work-life balance. “The germ of the idea came when I realized that over the last few years my commuting hours had become longer and longer," says Anand, who travels from “relatively" deep Gurugram to central Delhi. “I was doing over anywhere between 3-4 hours in a car just getting to work and going back home.... I have recorded myself sitting in the car for as much as 6 hours because there is a festival, a sudden downpour, or VIP movement," says Anand. 

She hadn’t always found the long commute annoying: “I used to enjoy my commute earlier because it gave me time to entertain myself but lately I had started seeing this as dead time. I moved from enjoying the solitude to being very annoyed, even frustrated."

According to reports on productivity by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), countries like the Netherlands and Germany show high productivity numbers and efficiency metrics even though employees log in fewer hours at work than workers from countries like Mexico or South Korea. Having read about teleworking (the use of technology to replace work-related travel), and the co-relation between less time spent in office with higher productivity in Scandinavian countries, Anand decided to approach her management team. “I did not have a binder of articles or research collected to support my idea or argument but there was, in the back of my mind, a consciousness that this kind of idea could be tabled and will be given a fair hearing with a generous, informed, progressive employer, and mine is all of these," she says.

Nik Khanna, 43, managing director, India, BAE Systems, says the request “certainly did not shock or surprise" him. His company encourages such conversations, particularly when employees need to take time off for personal needs such as childcare or caregiving, and their people policies recognize that most employees work best when they are able to achieve an effective work-life balance. “On a personal level, I was reminded of my mother, who spent 35 years at the World Bank, first in India and then in Washington, DC. I grew up respecting the many difficult choices she made throughout her career and this wouldn’t have been possible if the bank had not provided for some flexible work-life allowances along the way. Societies benefit when the workplace can encourage women to build and maintain their careers, often against great demands at home," he says.

Anand says her initial discussions did not include the idea of a four-day work week. Instead, it was really about reducing her time on the road and working from home at least one day. Somewhere down the line, however, she felt she needed a day to herself, a day not dedicated to family or employer. “I realized that in what has been a long career, the only break I had ever taken was maternity leave. I wanted some self-care now," she says.  

Of course, there were challenges to overcome. For Khanna, it was important to consider how it might impact the team dynamics and the business. “It had to be a win-win move for everybody for it to work out. Together with Indu, we sat down and discussed what the company policy allows, her specific workload, what would be the baseline requirements for this to work, what would be expected of us as a team and of her to enable the arrangement," he says. Managers not only need to understand the concerns of the employee, and the reason behind requests for flexibility, but also assess if the employee is a diligent, quality performer, one worth retaining, and one who will continue to help the business grow.  

“I’m a champion of work-life balance but this also does not signal some sort of precedent for all employees. Such ideas work depending on the employee, their role, their overall contribution to a highly performing team, their work ethic, and how that will impact the team’s output," he adds.

For Anand, the most critical aspect was managing perceptions. A woman in her 40s asking for a shorter work week could be perceived as wanting to slow down. “In my case, I did not worry that my employer would think a request like this indicated that my commitment level is down. I have been here for a while and I believe I have amply demonstrated my availability, especially for work that had to meet deadlines," she says.

She is clear that this is an arrangement with her present employer in the present set of circumstances. If the company needs her to be more available on the “off" day of the week, she would oblige happily. “Be open for some ‘give’ for some ‘get’. If my employer was open to discussing a different work arrangement, I also needed to be flexible about aspects of what that may mean for me vis-à-viscompensation, paid leave, etc.," she says.

One thing Anand was clear about: Unlike some people who look to slow down or “believe that it’s okay to dial-down the speed on the treadmill or to step off it at a certain stage in a career and then step back, I did not want any of that. I am still a full-time employee. Between my employer and me, there is no confusion on that. There is just an understanding that I have a day off in addition to my weekend," she says.

She has now joined a gym, and is reading more. “Rather than just consuming information, I am absorbing it now. Also, I have the flexibility to meet people for whom it was tough to find time in packed weekend schedules. I also get to spend time with my mum, who is now ageing," she says.

The most valuable lesson she has learnt: There is no need to hardcode work days and weeks into the established norm. We must allow ourselves the chance to shift gears—after all, a career is not a 100m sprint but an ultra-marathon. Fluidity and flexibility can surprise, and delight.

START THAT DIFFICULT CONVERSATION

“It should be about collaborating. First, be sure why the employee wants a changed schedule, and if this can be worked out. Second, it should not affect the ability of the organization to perform effectively. Finally, ensure the employee understands that the role and expected deliverables should not suffer," Nik Khanna’s advice for managers.

“Do a lot of mindwork. Be sure what you want gets conveyed appropriately because there can be many a slip between the cup and the lip in this territory. The managerial and leadership team within the company should be your sounding board because it is going to be impacted by the arrangement and has to buy into it," Indu Anand’s advice for employees.

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