work diversity: Why mandatory return to office could come at the cost of a diverse workforce

work diversity: Why mandatory return to office could come at the cost of a diverse workforce

When TCS chief human resources officer (CHRO) Milind Lakkad recently surmised that the reason for women’s attrition rate overtaking men’s at the tech major might be due to the pandemic restructuring of “domestic arrangements” preventing some women from returning to office, it triggered widespread debate. The Covid-19 pandemic is on the verge of becoming endemic, but with the question of when and how often one should come in to office yet to be settled, one signal from the experience of TCS could be that a policy advocating return to office might come at the cost of a more diverse workforce, with more women dropping out.

The lack of industry-wide data makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions but HR executives and experts in diversity reiterate that employers who offer some amount of flexibility stand to benefit when it comes to attracting and retaining a diverse talent pool, even as they add that circumstances from a year ago have changed.

The attrition data of a few of the top 10 companies by market cap on the BSE shows that the TCS pattern is not universal. At tech peer Infosys, attrition among women continued to be slightly lower than men in 2022-
23 and had reduced from the previous year. (Both TCS and Infosys require staff to come in some days of the week.) At HUL, attrition among permanent women employees was higher (25.3%) than among men (17.7%), but this mirrored last year’s trend.

However, the attrition rate of women in 2022-23 was up by a few percentage points from a year ago while male attrition was stable. A company spokesperson attributes the change to the expanded scope of reporting to include all HUL subsidiaries. “Post-pandemic, our attrition for women hasn’t seen any particular spike and continues to be at
half of industry average…. On a like-to-like comparison with last year, we have moved from 44% to 46% gender balance in 2022. We continue to work flexibly and offer hybrid ways of working,” says the spokesperson.

In a survey among female professionals conducted a year ago by recruitment and staffing services firm CIEL HR Service, 7 out of 10 respondents expressed willingness to quit their current job and look for an alternative if remote working ended.Over 90% said they wanted either a hybrid policy or the option to work fully remotely. Another survey by job search platform Indeed saw over 60% of women saying they preferred to work from home, while slightly less than a third preferred a hybrid way of working. CIEL’s chief executive Aditya Mishra says the findings still hold good broadly but there is a softening of women’s stance, with many more organisations asking people to return to office at least some days of the week and companies clarifying their positions around this.“However, the drivers to ask for flexibility remain relevant even today: responsibilities at home, elder care, child care, etc.,” says Mishra. He adds that so far, it’s still a small minority of women who are either quitting or looking at other options and that could be because most organisations are not yet making return to office mandatory or linking it to compensation or a threat of termination. “It’s still more like an advisory,” he says. With the job market in some sectors like tech being more turbulent compared with a year ago in the shadow of a global slowdown, the bargaining power of employees has also reduced.

The option to quit might also be a privilege, says Ragini Das, founder of, a private network for female professionals. “Year 2020 was one of hard realisations for many of us, about what works and what does not. The women who have the privilege to pick the setting that works for them could do so, but those who do not, will have to make do.”

Das adds that full-time remote working need not be suitable for all women. “It really depends on their circumstances. For some, remote working means a complete lack of boundaries and with women being the primary caregivers, it makes balancing everything harder.”

Indeed’s head of sales Sashi Kumar says some companies that are calling employees back to office are doing so after taking all factors into consideration. “Some IT services companies, for instance, might be bound by contracts to clients (to have staff on location).”

Another factor, he says, is maintaining equity among staff. “In the same office, some roles might need people to be back full-time while others might have more flexibility but the former might not be as attractive. Parity among employees might be another reason for returning to office fulltime.” But companies that made significant investments in the last two years in the hybrid model have been able to make that transition completely, he says.’s Das adds that for some organisations that had over-hired, an insistence on returning to office was also a way to cut costs by retrenching the staff that did not.

Companies like Deloitte India, which did offer flexible work hours earlier, have now switched to a default hybrid model. “We are committed to hybrid work today. We will encourage people to come to office but we won’t enforce it,” says Deepti Sagar, chief people and experience officer, Deloitte India.

“Within our hybrid policy, we have given different businesses flexibility to define how they want to implement it and that’s working to our advantage.” Sagar says that over the last three years, female attrition has consistently been lower than male. “Women continue to stay and it could be because we have flexibility at work.”

Anuradha Gupta, who manages marketing for Deloitte India, says she is expected to come in to office two-three times a week and though she usually chooses to go more frequently, there has never been an ask to be present physically. “Last year, for instance, when my father was struggling with cancer, I had to be in hospital every day so I would log in to work during the second half.”

At HDFC Bank, too, the option to work from home some days of the week remains. “As people started returning to office, we noticed that women in particular came back with requests to continue to work from home. So in several parts of the bank, especially the back offices, we continue to follow the hybrid model,” says Vinay Razdan, CHRO, HDFC Bank. The proportion of women in the workforce, he says, has increased. “Four years ago, women made up 18% of the workforce. Today, it’s 24%.”

While there is little debate that a flexible work policy will improve workplace diversity, and not just in terms of gender, whether companies prioritise that remains to be seen. But Indeed’s Kumar is optimistic that flexible working is here to stay. “As the labour market bounces back and there is pressure to fill roles, these aspects will once
again become a priority.”

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Author: Shirley