Safe, never expires
Safe, never expires
BY MANIDIPA MANDAL
The thing you quickly realize as a hands-on new father in India is that no one at work wants to know—or even to imagine— that you change diapers in the middle of the night and thus arrive at work after a dangerously groggy commute. Paternity leave is not yet a thing that the typical corporate job profile advertises, or indeed, allows. So what’s a dad who insists on being an equal, involved parent to do?
For some (many!), it is easiest to fall back and adopt the status quo: diaper changes and nighttime parenting are a mother’s job, as are meals and household chores. After all, she is the one with the maternity leave—paid, even!—whether or not her career growth can stand the setback. For a brave few, it is the motivation they need to sheepishly ask about working from home to support their family—usually still a motion denied in most parts of the country. It is only in the start-up, especially tech-foremost, professions that WFH dad sounds like a normal role for a colleague, and they aren’t so numerous even in the supposedly progressive urban spaces.
What the non-traditional brave-hearts all agree on: it is not an easy shift, literally or figuratively. "Having a child does have an impact on routines with respect to home or office, and in some cases, the home office," says Gaurav Jain, assistant VP of lean digital transformation at a leading MNC in the NCR. However, they also agree that the rewards are unprecedented. If you are an expecting parent and have questions, or are considering this career move as a young parent yourself, read on for reassurance and strategies to make it work.
Well, some folks do it because they are in an equal relationship with the mother and she is ready to regroup and move up the ladder after her maternity ends and the youngling is off toddling further from mum, so it’s time for dad to take his turn in the ring.
Others do it because with a new baby already stretching the finances, it just makes financial sense to minimize the outlay of a working wardrobe and the fuel bills, not to mention the time wasted in commuting when you could be bonding with the baby.
For yet more, it’s a logistical decision to forgo the joys of the water cooler to take a nap when baby does instead, allowing you to be in a front-row seat for their fastest-growing years, to bond with the newborn who was perhaps born at their mother’s ancestral home or at least in an OT that denied dads entry. Several dads seem to make their own makeshift paternity accommodation in the Indian business context this way, returning to the office cubicle once their child outgrows toddlerhood and starts formal schooling.
Most importantly, if you are a two-income family by necessity, WFH is less risky for a father’s future career graph than it is for a mother. Bosses across genders tend to assume any woman making a ‘family first’ choice is liable to jump ship or underperform because deprioritizing work; the same assumption is not commonly made of men, as it is assumed all men are keen on their careers by default even if they say ‘family first’. They therefore regard women as a bad investment when they ask to WFH, but are less likely to pull back from promoting or handing responsibilities to a man. The sexism is, yes, real. Or perhaps you’re the father who is the financially junior partner in your marriage, so it is overall less risky for the family for you to work from home while she continues to prioritize her career?
For entrepreneurs, like the founding partners of The Nestery (a couple with a 5 year old), the choice is often about economizing with available resources until the business grows enough to merit a dedicated factory/office space.
The honest answer to this is that it depends on your profession. People are less likely to look at a WFH Dad askance in the entrepreneurial context—Nestery co-founder TSV vouches for the fact that in India, the startup sector is already flouting enough conventional parameters, so what’s another one?
TSV opted to give up his day job and work full-time from home to grow the business with co-founder and spouse Vaishnavi, who had helmed the ship alone a while. Friends were supportive, he recalls: ‘Most of them are well aware of the startup life--they understand the prioritization of resources. The couple opted to work out of a makeshift home office for now, being reluctant to allocate more resources to a dedicated office space at this fledgling stage, where those resources could fuel growth and exploration instead.] More importantly, they understand that WFH is real work, and often, it’s more work than when you go to an office.’
Similarly, as a doctor or lawyer, a chartered accountant or a journalist, you are far less likely to meet resistance than in a corporate managerial role, sales & marketing, advertising, hospitality, etc.
That said, as Jain points out, it can be doable in client-facing and corporate industries as well—he has been a part of an industry which involves people interaction, managing teams, and clients based in Western countries as well, which translates into working odd hours in India. Currently, he flexi-times, going into office early and then picking up his little girl from daycare and continuing the rest of the workday from home, complete with evening snacks and such until his spouse returns from a more traditional office job. Jain, who sometimes worked from home even before the baby came along, actually used to do this to help with taking calls at odd hours (IST) or to prepare for a big presentation.
If you have worked in one of those super-traditional offices where you are expected to turn up at 9:30am (sharp) and leave by 6:30 (pm or am the next day!), you will likely feel a little unnerved by the newfound flexibility. Where does your day start and where does it end? Where does parenting pause for work?
It helps if your company is as supportive as Jain's—he doesn't even need to ask to work from home. But then, he also voluntarily asked to switch to a role that accommodates a WFH lifestyle (the position he held as a new father in the same company did not). It also helps that his job does not tie him to a desktop (if yours does, discuss with your manager the possibility of using a laptop with the necessary security barriers set up). Then again, technology notwithstanding, if you have to drop off your children to school or pick up a child from daycare like he does, you may find yourself missing some meetings, having to reschedule or catch up, no matter how important they are.
Technically, most WFH dads find the ‘workday’ an oxymoron where the day is actually longer though the working hours are fewer. You are exchanging the exhaustion and time of a commute for chores at home and parenting. “At the end of each day, I’m always more tired than I used to be after coming home from office,” Vishwanathan says. If you’re starting your own business after years of working for a larger entity, the stakes are higher—you invariably feel the pressure to put in more hours and take on more responsibilities. So block out your hours and set boundaries for yourself, just like you do for your child:
Secondly, many find the hours and days blur into a continuum as the space-time boundaries of swiping in and swiping out no longer apply. So create your own physical boundaries. This is easier if you have the space and other resources to set up a dedicated office space.
For most families, the father’s decision to work from home is welcomed with great enthusiasm by their partner, at least. As TSV recalls, “Any concern was more around leaving a well-paying job to start a business.” At best, some mothers may feel a little conflicted about giving up sole control of the homestead, but equal and—this is critical—tidy participation in household chores, including childcare, convinces them readily.
There is, Jain acknowledges, a perception among some people that you are relaxing with a beer if you are working from home and not really productive. For colleagues, relatives and neighbours who interpret WFH to mean at home in the old-fashioned English sense, set up a sign on the door and put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode during working hours (and the children’s naptimes and parent-child hours!); let people message you instead or tinker with your phone settings so that only calls from specific contacts are allowed to interrupt you.
Who here hasn’t seen the video of kids walking in on a live televised interview on BBC News? Click here.
It can be hard for older children—preschool to tween—to accept that their father is right there but unavailable to them at all times. Even if they are used to an occasionally busy mother, gender stereotypes are ingrained so early and pervasively that they may struggle to acknowledge that a father at home is not on ‘holiday’.
Routine helps, as with everything else when it comes to young children’s self-regulation, and clear, age-appropriate communication:
At the same time, not every boundary incursion needs to be dealt with in the same manner:
PSA: What is urgent to your child can be substantially different to what you consider important. Every time your child comes running, judge the magnitude of the issue to your child. Sometimes you drop what you are doing, sometimes your child has to wait, sometimes that interruption doesn’t get your attention at all.
First and foremost, have the attitude and will to believe that WFH is work—irrespective of gender. A lot of progressive, especially tech, companies are operating with this belief, as is the central government (at least on paper); however, a large number of working fathers are still employed with traditional companies where you are working only if you are clocked in. Be their advocate at your workplace. As someone who has done financial planning for large corporations, TSV can tell you that telecommuting workforces definitively reduce establishment costs, with negligible dip or even an increase in productivity. By all means, hire someone who can do this analysis and prove it to your supervisors independently.
Second, if you have the decision-making capabilities, leverage technologies that enable a productive WFH environment and also work for the in-office workforce. In 2020, there are a plethora of cheap as well as free tech solutions, and they aren’t rocket science.
Third, allow room for families in your work culture. Acknowledge children’s birthdays like you do your colleagues—maybe add it to a calendar and send them well wishes; ask if they need a half day on that day. Allocate (virtual) room for conversations on Slack or Snapchat about who cooked/ate/cleaned what and what funny thing the toddlers said today. Encourage employees to e-introduce their kids to colleagues (encourages empathy in both adults and children).
Finally, as an employer or HR professional, realise that supporting a remote workforce positions you as a progressive brand! If your stakeholders aren’t convinced, show them this.
Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.