How TCS Bridged the Gulf With an All-Women BPO

Tack­ling chal­lenges like re­stric­tive laws and per­cep­tions was no mean feat

The Economic Times - - Front Page - @times­

Mum­bai: On Sun­day, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi will wrap up his lat­est in­ter­na­tional tour of Bel­gium, United States and Saudi Ara­bia by vis­it­ing a BPO out­fit run by Tata Con­sul­tancy Ser­vices (TCS), In­dia’s largest IT ser­vices com­pany. It’s not your run-of-themill BPO unit. For one, the cen­tre is based in Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia — a city not ex­actly known for its IT ser­vices in­dus­try. What makes things even more in­ter­est­ing is that each one of the 1,000-odd em­ploy­ees at the cen­tre are women — in a coun­try where women aren’t al­lowed to drive.

“This cen­tre is proof of our in­tent and abil­ity to part­ner in the king­dom’s trans­for­ma­tion jour­ney by es­tab­lish­ing a new in­dus­try in the coun­try and by tap­ping into the ta­lent pool of qual­i­fied Saudi women,” TCS CEO N Chan­drasekaran told ET.

The cen­tre which was in­au­gu­rated as a joint ven­ture be­tween TCS and GE in 2014 – and with GE and Saudi Aramco as an­chor clients – was prob­a­bly among the first BPOs to set up shop in Saudi Ara­bia. It was the first BPO in the re­gion to em­ploy only women.

Over the last five years, fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in Saudi’s work­force has in­creased, as the rul­ing monar­chy has ac­tively eased re­stric­tions. A re­cent Bloomberg re­port cited that the num­ber of fe­male work­ers has surged by 48% since 2010. The king­dom, in re­cent years, has al­lowed women to vote for lo­cal elec­tions, work in re­tail and hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tors. The first fe­male Saudi lawyer got her li­cence in 2013.

Hav­ing said that, growth for TCS hasn’t been with­out chal­lenges. Find­ing a qual­i­fied work­force of women was not one of them. “65% of all grad­u­ates in Saudi are women,” says Neeraj Sri­vas­tava, re­gional di­rec­tor, Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain, TCS. One third of all Saudi grad­u­ates study­ing abroad are women. How­ever, women con­sti­tute only 16% of the king­dom’s work­force, largely be­cause of the re­stric­tive laws there.

Saudi law, for ex­am­ple, for­bids women from trav­el­ling, con­duct­ing of­fi­cial busi­ness or even un­der­go­ing a surgery with­out the con­sent of their male guardians – hus­bands, brothers or fa­thers. Of­ten, that con­sent is hard to come by for TCS. “Peo­ple sim­ply did not know what a BPO was and there were very un­fa­vor­able as­so­ci­a­tions with call cen­tres,” re­calls Di­nanath Kholkar, global head of BPS at Tata Con­sul­tancy Ser­vices.

To over­come these per­cep­tions, TCS in­vited not just po­ten­tial hires for in­ter­views but also their male guardians. “Ini­tially, to get fam­i­lies on board, we in­vited fa­thers, brothers and hus­bands and other fam­ily mem­bers to ac­com­pany the women for in­ter­views. We would fol­low that up with a quick tour of the cam­pus to put them at ease and demon­strate our com­mit­ment to keep the cen­tre an all­women work­place,” says Sri­vas­tava.

En­sur­ing that an all-women work­place stayed that way was an­other mat­ter. “We had to think of the mi­nut­est of de­tails like what hap­pens if a faucet bursts or we need an elec­tri­cian or for that mat­ter a global ex­ec­u­tive of TCS vis­its the cam­pus,” says a TCS ex­ec­u­tive, who was in­volved in brain­storm­ing the op­er­a­tional is­sues for the cam­pus. Today, even the jan­i­tors and sup­port staff at the cam­pus are women. “In cases where ser­vices of a man are re­quired, announcements are made, so that women em­ploy­ees can put on their abayas and niqabs – or leave the room,” adds the ex­ec­u­tive.

Vis­it­ing ex­ec­u­tives – be it men or women – from TCS or GE, are also trained ex­ten­sively on a “list of dos and don’ts.” Vis­it­ing women ex­ec­u­tives, for in­stance, are told not to sit in front of a car, along­side the driver.

Per­haps one of the big­gest chal­lenges TCS faced was that most of the work­force was in­ex­pe­ri­enced. Some of them had never worked in an of­fice be­fore. That led to some hic­cups, ini­tially. Dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son of Ramadan, in the first year of op­er­a­tions, a ma­jor­ity of em­ploy­ees went on leave en masse with­out in­form­ing the com­pany, re­calls an ex­ec­u­tive. The com­pany has since put a back-up plan in place. “We had to in­cul­cate a cul­ture of re­spon­si­bil­ity – that of­fice wasn’t about com­ing in at 9 am and leav­ing at 5 pm,” says Sri­vas­tava. In all, TCS has con­ducted over 6,10,000 cu­mu­la­tive hours of in­ten­sive train­ing ses­sions for its em­ploy­ees in Saudi Ara­bia.

In June 2015, TCS hired Amal Fatani – a dis­tin­guished aca­demic and a pro­moter of women em­pow­er­ment in the king­dom – as its cen­tre head. Fatani says she is en­cour­aged by the progress achieved in the cen­tre – “the first all-women, pri­vate sec­tor” out­fit – and is con­fi­dent that the cen­tre will grow to 3,000 em­ploy­ees in a cou­ple of years.

TCS says that the Riyadh cen­tre is now “an in­te­gral part” of its global de­liv­ery net­work and is no longer just a BPO de­liv­ery cen­tre.

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