Q&A: Navigating Motherhood at Work with Sayana Dutta

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This week we’re in conversation with Sayana Dutta, HR Lead, StackBOX. We talk about Creating a Parent-Friendly Workplace: The Business Case for Supporting Working Parents

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

How parent-friendly is your office culture right now?

Our office follows a hybrid system, where some roles can be done remotely while others require employees to be present physically. We don't have a fixed timing system or a box-out system, and our workforce comprises 97 people.

When it comes to performance management, I simply schedule calls with employees whose calendars are free, even if they cannot show up on video. We have a diverse team, and around 60-70% of our female employees are working mothers who appreciate the supportive environment we provide. Women possess great sincerity and multitasking abilities, alongside empathy and a sense of responsibility, which makes them exceptional workers. We have addressed the challenges they might have faced during the pandemic, being locked up and tied up with an identity crisis, and working with a toddler or an infant who has nowhere to go. For them, the whole world circles around their mom. It has been so challenging that any other task looks very simple to them.I find women that are just beating it. Overall, I find that women excel in various roles, such as project management, software development, and analysis.

How much do you think the work environment helps you, as a parent, to be more available for your child and create a better environment at home?

I believe that my company is highly goal and outcome-oriented, and I have played a significant role in fostering such an environment. We have implemented policies such as internet reimbursements and occasional and quarterly catch-up meetings, without judgment if someone cannot make it. Our company trusts its employees and does not constantly check on them, as long as the work is done on time. Recently, I had a busy schedule with five back-to-back commitments, but I managed to take a cab and bring my kids back home from the gym. Despite being a mom of a three-and-a-half-year-old who can be a handful, I can handle work requirements and even listen to my employees who need to pour their hearts out. Having been through tough times myself, I can confidently say that creating an environment of trust and support and fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility communicates that the employees are valued and cared for, creating a productive and positive work culture.

How have you experienced empathy in your workplace? Can you recall any incidents that made you feel like you are in an empathetic environment?

As an HR professional, I've come across many women employees who have considered quitting due to the pressures of family expectations and the uncertainties of working for a startup. To help them, I collaborate with their managers and advise them not to focus on specific performance goals and to give themselves a chance to stay afloat. I tell them to take a two-week sabbatical, take their tasks easy, and not worry about strict deadlines. Instead, they should support the main stakeholder and work on activities until they are ready to be an independent project manager. It's important to stay afloat, just like in a test match, where being there on the crease is more important than achieving huge run scores.

I remind them that quitting would be a disservice to themselves and their potential. One manager who followed this advice has come back phenomenally.

How do you balance empathy while maintaining performance when employees are taking it slow? Are there others filling in the gaps and how do you address the issue?

I was recently told about a rapport system that has been created in my company, where we get to know the different life stages of our team members. For example, someone sitting in a small city in Kolkata may have different challenges compared to someone in a bigger city like Goldberg near Bangalore.

We acknowledge and respect everyone's efforts and stories. When it comes to performance, I have noticed that family support plays a significant role for our team members. To show our appreciation, we have sent precision letters to their spouses, parents or anyone important in their life, thanking them for their contribution and sacrifices. We value and acknowledge the role they play in supporting them to work with us.

Have these conversations between male and female colleagues created biases in hiring, promoting, or having women in the workforce?

As someone who cares about gender diversity in the workplace, I feel concerned that women are not being given the same networking and collaborating opportunities as men from day one. This creates a bias against women in top leadership roles, and it's not fair to expect equal representation without addressing this issue at the foundational level. While progress may not happen overnight, I have noticed an increase in female participation compared to a decade ago. However, we still have work to do to ensure that women have equal opportunities to succeed in their careers.

How do you think gender roles at home are affecting workplaces right now?

I have observed that some employers are conscious about hiring women because of concerns about their potential breaks, family responsibilities, and other personal issues. These fears cannot be addressed by mere pep talks. On the other hand, I have noticed that women applicants tend to say "yes" to everything at work, feeling that they are at a disadvantage and need to prove themselves. I often question them about this tendency to agree to everything and encourage them to prioritize and set boundaries. Domestication still continues to work.

To avoid creating an imbalance, we need to stop asking for volunteers for undesirable tasks like taking meeting notes or doing all the creative work. Instead, we should consider a fairer approach, such as picking names out of a hat or bowl or taking turns to order lunch, or conducting informal group meetings.

What helps make work easier for women and parents on our team? And what about men who need to take time off for their families?

The flexible leave policy in our organization. We use an HRMS system to keep track of leaves, but we don't have a fixed number of leaves that can't be exceeded. We trust our employees to plan their leaves well and don't question them unless it's absolutely necessary. We even offer unpaid sabbaticals to support employees during emergencies or when they need time off for personal reasons. The key is to be supportive and understanding towards our employees' needs.

Do you think remote and hybrid work has changed relationships at home and has been a boon to parents in general?

It really depends on the family's circumstances. For some families who lack support systems such as caretakers, grandparents, or babysitters, I advise my female employees to consider daycare services for their children. It is crucial that children are not treated like miniature adults, spending all their time with toys or screens while in their parents' care. Parents must spend quality time with their children, and children have the right to be in the presence of peers their age. Remote work should not be an excuse to neglect a child's social development.

We also encourage people to bring kids to work, we will give them paintbrushes and pens to scribble and create. We will give them space to be free and play. Providing daycare facilities in the workplace or nearby can be beneficial for working parents. This includes options for after-school care and meals for children.

How does it work with people coming back from maternity/paternity leaves?

I had a woman in my team return from maternity leave and we made sure to set up meetings to help her transition smoothly. We made her aware of the system and empathized with her situation. Recently, one of her colleagues said she is doing very well.

And for permanent employees, we only think about replacing them or having new hires after checking in with them from the fourth month onwards to see if they're joining. We keep in touch with them informally through Slack, ask about their progress, and if they need any additional unpaid leave. We also check in with their managers and provide training if needed. The process lasts about a month and is kept informal to avoid making them feel monitored. These conversations help build a supportive environment and allow them to perform stress-free.

The workplace is a complex and dynamic environment, and it requires constant adaptation to the needs of its employees. From flexible leave policies to remote work arrangements, companies must find innovative ways to support their workers and promote a healthy work-life balance. By prioritizing the well-being of their employees, companies can not only improve productivity and reduce turnover, but can also create a more inclusive and diverse workplace. So, remember, taking care of your employees is not just good for business, it's the right thing to do.

Do you work in HR or Want us to cover how something in an organization is working? Email janhavi.jain@springworks.in or DM @janwhyy on Twitter.