MUMBAI • The coronavirus pandemic has hit women worldwide with job losses and closures of childcare centres. Yet a surprising bright spot is emerging: India's US$200 billion (S$268.4 billion) technology services industry, where new rules are expected to provide female workers with a broad swathe of flexible work arrangements and fresh employment opportunities.
On the outskirts of New Delhi, Ms Teena Likhari, 45, quit her job running operations for the Indian back office of a Silicon Valley company in 2018 because of a family medical emergency. Looking to rejoin the workforce this year, she expected a market stunted by lockdowns.
Not only did the operations manager quickly land a job with Indian outsourcer WNS Global Services, but working from her home in the city of Gurgaon, she began overseeing a 100-member team in the city of Pune about 1,450km away.
Ms Likhari is one of the early beneficiaries of India's decision to lift decades-old restrictions on remote work in back-office firms because of the pandemic. The tech services industry - one of the country's most important financially - can now allow employees to shift from traditional offices to work-from-anywhere arrangements, permanently if needed.
Indian women, who have often had to sacrifice for their husbands' careers or other commitments at home, have much to gain from the policy change. "Even a year ago, an operations leader working remotely would've been unimaginable," said Ms Likhari.
India's large numbers of English-speaking graduates and lower costs relative to the West have spawned a sprawling industry that is often called the world's back office because of its global reach.
The broad outsourcing sector, which includes technology services in addition to business processes, employs about 4.5 million people. Foreign banks from Deutsche Bank to Barclays run centres handling everything from global payrolls to technology infrastructure maintenance for themselves and clients.
Such new norms are particularly significant in India. Social conventions that required a woman to move to her husband's locations or stay with family in small towns, or simply be available inside the home to care for elders and children, have shut out millions of qualified female workers.
Greater flexibility and the opportunity to work from anywhere would give them choices they have never had before.
India's old rules - originally designed to prevent misuse of leased telecom lines - had prevented permanent work from home arrangements in back offices. But the pandemic pushed the government to remove decades-old reporting obligations, such as those requiring companies to provide office network diagrams in order to get international communication circuit allocations. The changes opened the door for people to work from home on a long-term basis.
Companies like WNS, which caters to the likes of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Tesco and Avon Products, are envisaging a hybrid office and home model, satellite offices in small cities and a blend of full-time employees and gig workers.
"We'll see work going to people rather than people going to work," said Mr Keshav Murugesh, group chief executive officer of WNS which employs 43,000 workers globally, nearly 30,000 of them in India. "With flexible hours or selected work days, over 100 million Indian women with secondary degrees could potentially find employment," he said.
Mumbai-headquartered Tata Consultancy, closing in on half a million workers, has committed to a strategy that by 2025, only 25 per cent of its workforce will be working inside an office at any one time.
"Given time and location flexibility, fewer women will quit after having children," said chief operating officer N.G. Subramaniam of Tata Consultancy, Asia's largest outsourcer with US$22 billion in annual revenue. "More women will stay in the workforce, more will reach senior leadership levels."
Most of the back-office outsourcing centres are located in sprawling campuses within big cities like Bangalore or New Delhi. Barclays, for instance, has over 20,000 workers providing technology solutions globally and UBS Group has 6,000 employees, about a third of them in Mumbai alone. Deutsche Bank employs 11,500, nearly half of whom are in the neighbouring city of Pune. Most of these workers have been operating from home during the pandemic.
"There is so much talent in smaller cities that has been untapped so far," said Deutsche Bank India head of human resources Madhavi Lall. "Flexible work arrangements would certainly bring that talent to the fore, especially women who find it difficult to migrate or shift their base."